To Keep Apple And Google In Check, An Open-Source Alternative From Ford


Liane Yvkoff, Contributor

September 30, 2015

As Apple fanboys and girls queue for hours at the Apple store for the new iPhone 6S, keep in mind that not everyone has an iPhone. Neither does everyone have an Android. There are other phones, such as Windows and BlackBerry still in the wild, especially in emerging markets, and they all require vehicle integration. This means that while automotive manufacturers are working out whether–or most likely how–to integrate Apple CarPlay and Android Auto into their vehicle pipeline, these aren’t be-all-end-all solution for car manufacturers. Not by a long shot. The connected car war is just getting started.

An industry standard developed by Ford

From navigation to music, the user experience is better and easier on most smartphones than any vehicle infotainment system. To give consumers what they want (namely their smartphones-as-in-dash-display) auto manufacturers can either cede their infotainment system to Apple and Google, or they can fight back using Ford’s Smart Device Link platform.

Smart Device Link (SDL) is an open-source platform developed by Ford as a way to future-proof its Sync infotainment system. It acts as middleware to help mobile devices talk to Sync, and it’s what will connect Ford vehicles to the nebulous Internet-of-things (IoT). In 2013 Ford offered SDL to other car makers for free with the intention of creating an automotive industry standard that would enable developers to create an application once and reach all vehicles using SDL. The engineering cost savings for app developers is real and would make it easier for The Next Big Idea app to roll out to more vehicles at a faster pace. But there’s another benefit of SDL: it’s also a CarPlay- and Android Auto-fighter.

Fighting the Apple- and Google-ification of cars

Many auto manufacturers spend considerable time, energy, and money developing their infotainment platform to deliver an interactive experience that is unique to and synonymous with their brand. But Android Auto and Apple CarPlay threaten to usurp this increasingly important piece of prime interior real estate. Consumers are demanding interfaces and apps that are more like–if not identical to–their smartphones. They want Apple Maps, Google Maps, and Waze as their navigation system, and they want to easily access their music and other entertainment sources without remembering their infotainment platform’s terse voice command menu tree.

For now, the best way this directive can be achieved is for auto makers to adopt and integrate CarPlay and Android Auto, but giving consumers what comes at a branding cost. Plug in your Apple iPhone into a CarPlay-compatible head unit, and anything on the vehicle’s in-dash display is replaced by a mirror of the phone screen with a handful of permitted apps. The same goes for Android Auto. This makes a $100,000 ride have the same user interface of a $20,000 econobox–it’s not exactly a premium experience.

This is a conundrum for the automotive industry, which develops vehicles on a five-year lifecycle as opposed to the 18-month lifecycle of smartphones. They can’t offer the latest and greatest apps and interfaces unless they are in lock-step with Google and Apple. But as cabin interior becomes one of the last bastions of differentiation between car makers, many are reluctant to adopt these device-based platforms and deliver the same ubiquitous experience as everyone else. Moreover, iPhone and Android devices may reign today, but what happens with the next device disrupter enters the market. They need a plan B.

Building a consortium

While Ford has offered the automotive industry an alternative, it’s not clear they’re going eager to adopt it. So far Ford is the only one building on this platform that it branded AppLink. Toyota has announced that it is looking at integrating SDL in its Entune infotainment system, but it hasn’t made any formal commitment yet. Ford spokesperson Alan Hall says that they are in the “late stages of discussions” with other auto makers but cannot name names or give an announcement date. A problem that may be slowing manufacturer adoption is that there just aren’t many apps that drivers feel compelled to use.

The primary draw of CarPlay and Android Auto is that they enable the driver to use his device’s proprietary map app that he knows inside and out as the navigation source. There are no navigation apps available for AppLink in the U.S. This means that customers must use the native navigation system built into Sync, prop their smartphone up on the dash and use the devices native or custom navigation app, or use CarPlay or Android Auto to get those navigation apps and lose all the features of Sync when connected. At least until AppLink 3.0 debuts next year.

AppLink 2.0 doesn’t allow moving displays, which prevents navigation apps from being mirrored from a connected device onto Sync’s display screen, but AppLink 3.0 will. Ford has announced that its working with Baidu to develop Baidu Maps and Baidu Voice Assist as part of the AppLink program for the China market that will offer a Google Maps-like experience for smartphone users. This will be the first navigation app that Ford allows in its vehicles. For the U.S. market, Waze, which is owned by Google but largely independently operated, would seem like a prime contender for an AppLink integration, as would HERE, which is now owned collectively by Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. But no navigation app developer has made any AppLink integration announcements to date.

To make this proposition more enticing, last week the car maker announced that its opening up some vehicle data for use in apps to create a more customized experience. Available data includes average fuel economy, battery voltage, external temperature, fuel level, safety belt status, acceleration, driver braking, GPS, speed, tire pressure, vehicle identification number, odometer and engine rpm. This change could open the door to a better navigation app that people may be willing to pay money to use, and if Ford approves, gain integration with the Sync system and mirrored on the in-dash display screen. But that’s just a hypothetical. Until then, manufacturers need to learn to recapture driver’s interest in embedded navigation system by making them as good–if not better–than Apple Maps, Google Maps, and Waze, or lose the center stack to Silicon Valley giants.

This article was written by Liane Yvkoff from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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