Built-In Google Vehicle Apps Arrive

Android Automotive OS opens the door, cautiously, for third-party developers.

Google Maps runs on the Polestar 2’s large central dashboard screen native to the vehicle. No phone is needed. (Google)

The modern vehicle cabin experience increasingly is defined by software and interactive screens. The new prominence of digital media interactions is evident in the late 2020 debut of the all-electric Polestar 2. Made by Volvo, it’s the first production vehicle to have built-in Google apps and services.

Haris Ramic, lead project manager for Android Automotive OS. (Google)

The terminology in this realm can be confusing. Android Auto (and Apple CarPlay) launched to consumers in 2015. But those products only “project” apps to the dashboard from a mobile device. But now, the Android Automotive Operating System (AAOS) runs directly on in-vehicle hardware. No phone required.

Functionality to support the infotainment cluster, HVAC, AM/FM radio and integration with various vehicle sensors was only added in the last few releases of Android. The Polestar 2, followed by the all-electric Volvo XC40 Recharge, became the first vehicle to take full advantage of those more “embedded” capabilities.

Millions of vehicles from other brands are likely to follow, starting as soon as this year. In early February 2021, Ford confirmed a new strategic partnership with Google in which, Ford stated, "millions of future Ford and Lincoln vehicles at all price points will be powered by Android, with Google apps and services built-in," starting in 2023. General Motors and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance announced plans to offer built-in Google apps and services, including Google Assistant, Google Maps or Google Play. Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles and PSA (now Stellantis) also will use AAOS. Critically, the AAOS now allows partners and developers to write Android apps that manage previously inaccessible car hardware.

Downloadable apps

An emulator is the device that allows developers to build and test apps powered by Android Automotive OS. This one shows built-in Android apps found on the Polestar 2. (Google)

“Innovation can come from anywhere, so we want to provide a set of APIs [application programming interfaces] that anybody can use and develop,” said Haris Ramic, lead project manager for Android Automotive OS. “But we’re going slow rather than opening up everything.” The long-term vision is a robust marketplace of third-party apps such as Google Play Store (or Apple App Store) for wheels. The move in that direction is underway.

Throughout 2020, app developers have been publishing vehicle media apps on Google Play. The idea is to allow drivers to download those apps directly to the car, just as consumers today download countless apps to the phone. Ramic said that the Android Automotive OS team would focus on areas with the most immediate consumer value for drivers, such as navigation. There are reasons for the rollout of built-in Android apps to move slowly: privacy and security. Ramic explained that messaging and calendar integrations might have high value for consumers. But the lines must be clearly defined.

Drivers can still operate the Polestar 2 EV without a Google Account. But without logging in, the functionality of some apps, like Google Assistant and Google Maps, will be limited. Meanwhile, signing a vehicle into a Google Account unlocks saved navigation spots and other location-based services such as local weather reports. Drivers need to be logged in via the vehicle to download those nifty third-party media apps.

Ramic appreciates the importance of privacy. “Messaging should remain on your personal device rather than something that stays in the car,” he said. Fellow passengers, or somebody who takes your car for a spin, should not be able to see all your messages. The operating system also has features designed to remotely wipe out account info before the vehicle is passed to a second owner or in case of theft.

Core feature framework

Over-the-air updates and voice recognition are integral to AAOS. And so are functions that help sort out the competing demands on users’ attention, such as adjusting music volume or pausing an audiobook for an incoming phone call. The interplay is managed via a hardware abstraction layer (HAL). That’s what defines the vehicle properties that OEMs and third-party developers can implement via the CAN bus, Ethernet or other mechanisms.

Ramic and his team understand that every vehicle model is different. He compared the vehicle, as a piece of hardware, to how Samsung Galaxy and Google Pixel phones are different – yet they both operate on Android. “Every phone partner adapts it to fit their screen for different sets of services, microphones, and cameras,” said Ramic. “There are lots of things that come on top of it.”

How core vehicle functions are controlled via AAOS and apps is determined by the automaker; Google provides the operating system. And Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft will provide operating systems to other automakers. But ultimately, dashboard design, safety, privacy and security remain the OEM’s responsibility.