With modern car manufacturers moving towards multiple, massive touch screens to display and control functions previously handled by physical buttons and knobs, the debate about driver safety and distraction warrants its own deep discussion. However, for this post, let’s assume for now that a combination of autonomous driving, voice UI, and interaction design means that these next-generation touch screen UIs will be just as safe and practical as what we know now. The interesting question to ask is ‘with third party operating systems taking over, will the automakers let themselves become just another smartphone?’
If we look at the evolution of the mobile phone over the last 30 years, we can predict some things.
The 1990s was the era of the basic phone; a small screen and tactile numeric keypad to make voice calls, and that was pretty much it. In the late 90s through early 2000s, we were introduced to ‘feature phones’. These had limited capabilities to what we have now with the modern-day smartphone, but were an advancement over basic phones because they allowed calling, text messaging, and some early multimedia and internet capabilities. This is where we started to get a feel for what it was like to access content on the go, previously only available through desktop and laptop computers.
Moving into the early 2000s through the mid-2010s we saw the emergence of the modern-day smartphone. This was the era of wide-ranging hardware form factors and operating systems. Consumers had to decide between QWERTY keyboards, sliders, flip phones, and touch screens, and whether they wanted to use RIM’s Blackberry, Nokia’s Symbian, Windows Mobile, Google’s Android, or Apple’s iOS. There were a lot of options, and each manufacturer was competing for market share through their own combination of hardware form factors, operating systems, and interactive features.
What happened in the mid-2010s onward changed mobile phone design and user experience forever. Mobile phone hardware design had consolidated into a single pane of glass, and most of the market was running either Android or iOS. In fact, by 2014, 50% of the mobile phone market was a combination of Samsung hardware running Android OS and Apple devices running iOS. By December 2021, almost 80% of mobile phone manufacturers were running some version of either Android or iOS – Samsung (27.8%), Apple (27.3%), Xiaomi (10.9%), Huawei (8.5%), Oppo (5.4%) – all presented through a single large tappable touchscreen.
– Visual Capitalist
With mobile hardware seemingly now at parity, for the mobile phone consumer, the decision making process changed from a hardware decision – “do I want a QWERTY keyboard or a gaming phone or a music phone?” – to a software decision – “do I want to use iOS or Android?”
Is car buying moving in the same direction? Is the future of automaking now a hardware business running third party operating systems?
According to Apple, CarPlay is available on over 98% of cars in the US. Additionally, 79% of US buyers only consider a car that works with CarPlay.
It’s clear that purchasing a car is also becoming a software decision, but with a big difference. The hardware form factor is not a generic piece of glass and metal. It’s the proportion, shape, and surface details of the exterior. It’s the placement, material selection, texture, and ergonomics of the interior. It’s the handling, acceleration, and braking performance on the road. Often it’s simply brand affinity. Buying and driving a car can be a utilitarian exercise, but it can also be a visceral and emotional one as highlighted by a study commissioned by BMW called ‘The Secret Life of Cars’. It is this unique combination of hardware and software that differs from mobile phones and that is a key consideration in how automakers’ brands will evolve.
"Technology cannot be an end in itself. Foremost in our minds must be the experience that the driver wants to have. In this respect, our engineers are now really engineers of human experience.”
– Dr Frank Althoff, BMW Driver Interfaces Management
– The Mercedes Benz MBUX Hyperscreen
In 2022, we are at a point in automotive user experience that is similar to what we saw with mobile phones in the mid-2010s. RIM’s Blackberry, Nokia’s Symbian, Windows Mobile, Google’s Android, and Apple’s iOS are now BMW’s iDrive, Mercedes’ MBUX, Tesla's OS, Android Automotive on Polestar and Lucid, and Rivian's OS. Manufacturers have invested significant time and money in developing the user experience of these operating systems and making sure that they align with the driving experience associated with their brand. Are they going to let the next generation of Apple CarPlay simply take over? And is this really a choice they can make? Or will consumer demand make it for them?
There are a few reasons why automakers might let this happen.
It’s impossible to ignore the momentum and reach that CarPlay has had in the automotive market. Automotive UI design simply hasn’t kept pace with what’s happened in the mobile device space, leading consumers to just plug in their phone for a better experience. The mobile OS, constantly updated over the air, providing always-on access to your most important information, quickly replaced the car’s native controls before they even drove it off the lot. Being able to extend the use and familiarity of everything contained within their device into the driving experience simply by plugging in their phone has become table stakes at this point.
Legacy automakers are simply not software companies, at least not yet. MBUX, the in-car UI for Mercedes Benz was first released in 2018 and only for the A-Class. In 2019 it was an optional feature but not until 2020 did it become a standard, no-cost feature. Now, in 2022, Mercedes has announced it is developing MB.OS with a plan to launch in 2024 by hiring 3000 software engineers to develop the new OS.
“I firmly believe that software changes the world, forms the central nervous system of our modern vehicles, and is the decisive success factor for digital innovations.”
– Dr. Michael Hafner, Vice President MB.OS Base Layer & MBUX
Yet, in the same four year period, iOS has had 33 releases from 11.2 to 15.6 and CarPlay is available on 98% of all cars in the US. Tesla, which is arguably a software company more so than a car company, releases a new software update approximately once per month, putting them at 48 releases over the same period.
So, can these legacy automakers catch up?
To get there, automakers are in a heated race with Android and iOS for user data. While it should be expected that your mobile device is collecting and transmitting all kinds of data – from in-car app usage to entertainment habits – automakers are also harvesting their own insights presumably to better understand how their products are being used.
In 2019 the Wall Street Journal ran a “privacy experiment” that found that automakers collect data through hundreds of sensors and an always-on Internet connection. They hacked a 2017 Chevrolet and found that the vehicle collected the driver’s precise location, stored their phone’s ID and the people they called, tracked the driver’s acceleration and braking style, and sent back reports to GM through an on-board Internet connection. The study found that many vehicles now copy over personal data as soon as you plug in a smartphone.
A spokesman from GM says the data GM collects from their vehicles generally falls into three categories: vehicle location, vehicle performance, and driver behavior, and that “much of this data is highly technical, not linkable to individuals and doesn’t leave the vehicle itself.”
While automakers claim this technology is generally in place to improve safety, will this data ultimately give them an edge over third party operating systems? How might this data eventually lead to improving the design of the in-car experience?
– Car camera data harvesting, Consumer Reports
On the flip side, there are also reasons automakers should not let Apple fully take over the in-car UI and user experience.
The in-car experience has become increasingly defined by the dashboard UI – visual and audio iconography, typography, and motion graphics. These are all nuanced elements that dictate the driving experience. Having control of these elements is critical to differentiating from other manufacturers and reinforcing what consumers understand the brand to be.
All of these taglines are different and familiar. They instantly create and reinforce an image of what it’s like to drive one of these vehicles. Imagine if all these cars now have the same dashboard UI that is more reminiscent of a customer's phone. Or more specifically, what if the driver sees CarPlay when they think of driving their new BMW? The control of the brand experience is gone.
An automotive OS is a platform in its own right. Mercedes forecasts automotive AI hardware, software, and services will grow from $2 billion to $26 billion by 2025. Rivian is providing a membership program that will start by providing complimentary charging, off-road assistance, and unlimited LTE access before adding benefits like drive modes, enhanced vehicle capabilities, and in-cabin content.
We are at the very beginning stages of in-car UI’s housing and supporting their own app ecosystems similar to Apple introducing the App Store. By maintaining ownership of this aspect of the digital ecosystem, automakers can tailor how new service offerings show up in their vehicles while reinforcing their brand.
Unlike mobile phones, cars are not just single pieces of glass. There is a balance to be found between manufacturing simplicity and standardization, and brand differentiating layouts in hardware and software. Certain models in a lineup may be best suited for a consistent hardware and software design, while halo or select top-tier models may warrant a unique hardware and software combination.
– Air from Lucid Motors
Finding that balance actually creates an opportunity for automakers to innovate on the in car hardware experience. Lucid is showing us how new interactions can be created to connect separate screens, and that how or when a screen is shown at all can be dependent on different driving situations.
Depending on a third-party UI to control and display all the information in a vehicle would not enable this type of customization. This could lead to car interiors moving towards a common standard in the same way that all mobile phones eventually became single pieces of glass in the mid 2010s. It becomes a question of who is leading who? The automakers or Apple?
We are at an interesting point in the evolution of the driving experience. While autonomous vehicles seem to be the ultimate goal, there remains a gap between now and then where I believe we will see the same patterns play out that we saw in the mobile phone space over 10 years ago.
The difference this time is that both outcomes will be true…
On one hand, a subset of automakers see an Apple CarPlay takeover of their in-car experience as a positive. These automotive purchases will be largely driven by a demand for a familiar and interoperable user experience. Just connect your iPhone and you’ll get the same experience from vehicle to vehicle.
On the other hand, another subset of automakers, likely the luxury brands, decide there is an immense ecosystem and brand value opportunity associated with creating, developing, and expanding their own in-car user experience and the range of features and services that come with time. You may still be able to use CarPlay, but expect the native UI to give most of what you need. A critical aspect of this business model is a full 360 approach to the driving experience, and these brands do not plan to leave this in the hands of a third party.
So which model will prevail? Will we see both in-market in the near future? Time will tell.
We’re excited for the future of automotive, as the in-car experience becomes a balancing act of brand, automation, software, and hardware. If your team is exploring this space and you’re seeking a partner to help lead research, concepting, and prototyping, reach out to us. We’d love to help.