Google, like Apple, will build a Car OS, not a car

Let's hope Google cars are easier to upgrade than Android phones

It looks like Apple isn’t the only big tech firm changing its go to market strategy for self-driving cars, as Google also intends to abandon manufacturing plans in favor or creating an operating system auto makers can use.

Drive away vaporware

We’ve all seen the pictures of Google top brass grinning from inside their early self-driving vehicle prototypes.

Now it looks like those cars will never hit the road. The Information (via Patently Apple) claims Google/Alphabet has decided to abandon plans to make its own vehicles in order to focus on developing the operating systems for autonomous vehicles. Wired says Google will be hosting a self-driving car press event in California today

Given the complexity of the vehicle market and the many challenges all parties will face (legal, ethical, technical and more) as they put these robotic vehicles on the street, I’d feel more confident in Google’s plans if it had ever figured out how to update Android phones. We don’t want cars becoming incompatible with other road vehicles because of software faults that develop three years into the ownership cycle, do we?

Apple Car redux

Google’s news follows recent whispers claiming Apple has also changed its plans for self-driving vehicles.

  • In October, reports claimed Apple had decided to focus on the OS, rather than car construction.
  • “Dozens” of Apple Car team members have allegedly been laid off as part of this rethink.
  • The company was originally thought to be aiming to sell 500,000 Apple Cars each year.

Apple is working with emerging technologies as it seeks to explore future disruptive opportunities – even if its car plans come to nothing, it will have learned lessons that may help it develop other new products.

Connecting vehicles

In the event that both Apple and Google decide to license their self-driving car operating systems to existing manufacturers then partnerships will be critical to success.

We know Apple has been in extensive discussions with vehicle manufacturers. We also know iTunes chief, Eddy Cue, sits on the board of Ferrari along with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and chairman of Ferrari, Sergio Marchionne. (The latter being a “self-confessed Apple freak”.)

Apple is also opening a string of R&D centers in locations that happen to be quite close to some big vehicle brands. For example, Apple’s Naples, Italy, iOS development center is situated in the same city as a modern Fiat Chrysler manufacturing facility.

That may well be circumstantial, but it is interesting that Marchionne has already stated an interest in building an Apple Car

What makes this a little more speculatively engaging is that Google has itself reached a deal with Fiat-Chrysler to put its system inside 100 vans -- and (today) announced plans to spearhead a ride-sharing scheme. Whatever does transpire, Fiat-Chrysler seems determined to be in the driving seat..

Where next?

What seems clear is that there’s a new gold rush when it comes to autonomous vehicles. Google’s former self-driving car team leader, Chris Urmson, is allegedly putting together his own firm to develop autonomous vehicle technologies; Uber, Tesla and (more recently) Samsung are all engaged in their own research, and other former Google experts (including the project’s co-founder Anthony Levandowski) have launched their own autonomous car projects.

With all these different forces in play, there is no guarantee Google or Apple will dominate the future of road transportation – but one thing is certain: Whatever vehicles do drive themselves on our roads will need to support a much higher degree of interoperability than we currently enjoy in the smartphone business.

We can’t see the vehicle-to-vehicle communication system inside a Google-powered car refusing to speak to an equivalent Apple, Samsung or Uber-powered vehicle.

This means that before we can really expect to see these things on our roads, we must also expect a wide, cross-industry standards body to emerge in order to define how different systems work together. Until we have that, then all of these self-driving vehicles will simply be autonomous accidents waiting to happen.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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