When you sit inside the bright orange Audi Q8 concept car, you’re greeted with a minimalist interior with no knobs or physical buttons. Screens, instead, dominate the aesthetic, with the main dash acting as your control center for everything from music to maps to, in future Audi vehicles, the air conditioning and windows.
Audi’s car, located inside a climate-controlled demo room at Google IO 2017, is just a concept, but it and a Volvo V90 Cross Country located in another demo room nearby, are designed to show off Google’s newest Android initiative, one that places it at the heart of everything as a vehicle’s operating system.
Not to be confused with Android Auto, Google’s first volley at connected cars, what Google is showing off, and a new part of its plan for the future of connected cars, is the Android OS as we know it.
“Android Auto today is an app that’s on the phone, so when you connect that to the car or establish that with wireless, the phone is powering the experience in the car,” Dylan Thomas, head of partner engineering for automotive at Google, tells me.
“What we’re showing now is there’s no need for a phone,” he continues. “It’s the Android operating system being embedded in the car. So no phone required, and the screen is being powered by the computer in the car, running Android.”
Android in the car, the best term to describe Google’s efforts, infuses the operating system in nearly every corner of a vehicle.
The apps, infotainment system, and even the windows, sunroof, air conditioning and any connected devices, such as Philip Hue light bulbs and Nest thermostats at home, are all based on and connected through the Android platform.
What’s more, Google Assistant is a key part of the system, letting drivers call up Google’s digital helper when they need an update on the weather, directions to the nearest sushi restaurant, or any other query.
It’s important to note that Audi’s Q8 is a concept, and its Android system was not hooked up to control in-car functions such as rolling down the windows.
The Android in Volvo’s V90, meanwhile, did have the power to turn on the AC, change the temperature on a display Nest thermostat, and alter the color of Philips Hue light bulbs dangling nearby.
The Android layout and look of each car was unique to the vehicles, though common apps like Spotify and Google Maps were staples.
A big part of Google’s approach with Android in the car is to allow manufacturers to tailor the experience. For Audi, that means using Nokia’s Here Maps in addition to Google Maps, and a design that’s true to the Audi aesthetic.
For Volvo, the company can keep the four-tile screen layout that customers are familiar with, yet still rely on Android to run the vehicle’s connected components.
Allowing for customization is an important piece of having the experience appeal to both customers and car manufacturers, Thomas explains.
“When I spend money on an Audi, it should look like an Audi,” he says. “[Customers] don’t want it to look like a tablet was bolted onto the car. So customization for OEMs is very important, not just for the OEMs but actually for the customer.”
Literally wired for Android
I was curious if Google sees this is as the next evolution of its connected car efforts, one that leaves Android Auto in the dust as car makers inject Android into the very wires of their vehicles, rather than hook them up via tethered device.
“We’re trying to make a nice, seamless experience of connected services for every car,” Thomas says. “I don’t think it’s exclusionary. If I have an old Mazda 5, I take my phone, I stick it on the dash and I have Android Auto there. If I have a Q8, then I would have Android embedded in the car. It’s not a choice. It’s whatever is appropriate.”
Android Auto, then, is sticking around, with Android in the car available for manufacturers who want a single screen experience.
But ask Volvo the same question, whether this embedded system is the future of connected cars, and the Swedish car maker has a different answer.
“Yes,” replies Petter Horling, director of Volvo’s Silicon Valley Tech Center. “If you mirror the phone – and honestly [Apple’s] CarPlay and Android Auto have taken big steps to ease up the journey to connect yourself into the car, it’s a good first step – but it never goes beyond mirroring the phone.
“As we have showcased in the car, many of the in-car functionality needs to be seamlessly integrated into the experience and preventing having a screen-in-a-screen, so to speak.”
These cars, while a different beast than we’re used to seeing connected by a mobile operating system, is really no different than a phone or tablet running Android.
This is a huge plus for developers because they don’t need to develop new apps for the car. Instead, the same app created for a phone can be brought into a vehicle, and function in a way customers are used to seeing.
“One of the things we’re showing in Spotify is playing a track on the main screen, and the app, it’s just the same old Spotify app,” Thomas says. “It’s the same on a Volvo, it’s the same as on your phone, my phone. But, the current played track shows up in the vehicle cluster.
“So just having information come out from out the standard app, and then be available for the OEMs to take that anywhere they want in the vehicle, that’s what makes it feel immersive and really part of the vehicle instead of this bolted on thing. It’s the difference between slapping a phone on the dashboard and having it in the car.”
In addition to easing the leap from phone to car for app developers, car makers now have access to Android to be used in a way that makes sense for their vehicles, and that speeds up bringing connected cars to the road.
“Our customers want to have the services which are available on their smartphones or at home that they can control with Google Assistant, and for us, it’s very difficult to rebuild these services,” says Michael Schwenk, project lead of user interface and experience at Audi.
Instead of devoting the resources to research and development a connected car experience that may be obsolete before it goes on sale, Schwenk describes Android as a ready-to-go system, backed by developers and Google, that Audi can bring to customers quicker than it can.
Just how quickly that is, however, isn’t exactly clear. Volvo plans to bring its Android-connected cars to market in two years – “a very short time” due to “lot of heavy lifting” that still needs to be done on both Google and Volvo’s parts, Horling says. Audi, meanwhile, hasn’t set a date yet.
As for the price of a car running Android, no one was ready to talk specifics, but Horling says “it’s not going to shoot up to the moon.” Volvo will talk pricing closer to launch.
My impression with the cars is that they do allow for a more seamless use of Android in the car versus tethering your phone, however nothing was so mind-blowingly better that I feel I need to wait until 2019 to buy a new Volvo.
This is an early look at where Google’s connected future is headed, and it makes sense to remove the middle-man of your phone and have Android simply just work in a vehicle.
No doubt more features and smoother implementation will arrive by the time Volvo, Audi and any future partners’ cars come to lots around the world, but these early looks show a promising future for Android in the car.