Google to reveal operating system that will rival Apple CarPlay

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WASHINGTON -- Google will unveil its first in-car operating system at its annual software developer conference this month, intensifying its race with Apple to become the leader in dashboard computing, three sources briefed on the project said.

Google’s system, which was known internally as Google Auto Link during development, will be the first product to emerge from the Open Automotive Alliance, a Google-led consortium that also includes Audi, General Motors Co., Honda Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Group and chipmaker NVIDIA Corp.

The sources said GAL is not an embedded infotainment system, but a “projected” system -- meaning that smartphones using Google’s Android operating system could be controlled using a car’s own controls and display screen.

Google plans to reveal the interface and offer demonstrations to developers at the Google I/O conference, scheduled for June 25-26 in San Francisco, but will not announce which model will use it first, the sources said. When the Open Automotive Alliance’s formation was announced in January, the group said it would bring the Android operating system to cars “starting in 2014.”

Spokesmen for Google did not return messages seeking comment.

Interfaces for Android phones are a natural next step for Google, which started an automotive push in 2005 and now has partnerships with several automakers. Audi has an exclusive deal for its luxury cars to use Google Earth satellite images as an overlay for GPS maps; Hyundai has equipped some of its cars with a built-in Google search engine function that allows drivers to find nearby destinations with voice recognition.

However, as in the market for smartphones, where the Android operating system has overtaken Apple’s iOS as the world’s most popular with more than 1 billion devices activated, Google is playing fast follower to the inventor of the iPhone.

As in the market for smartphones, where the Android operating system has overtaken Apple’s iOS as the world’s most popular, with more than 1 billion devices activated, Google is playing fast follower to the inventor of the iPhone.

Apple made a splash at the Geneva auto show in March with CarPlay, an interface resembling that of the iPhone. It lets drivers choose a song, set a GPS destination or call a friend using voice controls or large, colorful buttons on a touchscreen.

In press materials, Apple described CarPlay as “a smarter, safer way to use your iPhone in the car” -- with an emphasis on “safer,” now that auto-safety regulators are putting pressure on smartphone companies to reduce the risk of distracted driving.

Apple said in Geneva that CarPlay would be available first in March in the Ferrari FF grand tourer. Apple said that models from Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo would follow later this year.

Apple and Google’s rush into the automotive space could change the approach taken by automakers, which have spent considerable time and money over the past two decades crafting their own infotainment systems.

The technology giants argue that most customers are used to using either iOS or Android smartphones, so offering similar platforms in the car will be a more natural fit. Apple and Google also have large communities of developers who write apps for their platforms -- offering an economy of scale that automakers, with their custom-made infotainment systems, have long lacked.

Apple and Google ultimately aspire to provide embedded infotainment systems, which would offer a lucrative new line of business beyond PCs, tablets and smartphones.

Beyond the system to be unveiled this month, Google is “also developing new Android platform features that will enable the car itself to become a connected Android device,” the company said in January. “Stay tuned for more details coming soon.”

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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