How Automotive Can Learn from Android’s Fragmentation

by Nicole on April 20, 2017

This is a story of a budding romance, unrequited love, missed connections, personal rage, and hope. Or, it’s the tale of a girl who drove through the Alps in the new Audi A5 Coupe who had an intimate discovery with just how fragmented the automotive industry is today.

Like most people, I spend a lot of time with my phone, but unlike most, I review dozens of phones a year and have been reviewing phones since before the first iPhone was released. Sitting in the cockpit of today’s most modern car I was struck by the realization that the automotive industry is experiencing the same fragmentation found in the early days of Android.

I understand that automotive is more complicated and that the fragmentation is somewhat artificial: Google, Apple, and the car maker all want to own the experience and the data that’s being generated from you using in-car services. Looking for a restaurant along your route? Whoever controls how you interact with your car gets to make that suggestion.

Services are how the car of the future is going to be monetized and car manufacturers failing to enter the race now could mean they don’t get to play at all later.

Sadly, this mutual unwillingness to play well together and a fundamental ecosystem fragmentation means that the experience being delivered to consumers is incomplete, disjointed and second rate.

Automotive is doing its best to offer a strong digital experience, improving dashboards and infotainment systems. The car industry has traditionally been all about the analogue, cornering, accelerating, braking, the sound of the engine. When car companies think about competing with tech the strength of their R&D departments is going to be around the analogue elements of the car. Better braking, more efficient engines so focusing on digital interfaces and icons is relatively new. To car people digital is ancillary, it’s a nice add-on, it’s an option or an upgrade, it’s not a key feature of the vehicle. Designing for digital is about following the experience right through to the end, and Apple got their quicker because of they standards. It took Android longer because the open-source nature of the platform is more customizable and (still) embraces difference.

A case for standards

We’d like to think that innovation comes from freewheeling chaos, but it’s not. Extreme order begets breakthroughs in business.

Most organizations get it wrong when it comes to thinking about standards and innovation. They think that standards are a necessary evil, important but dull, their significance limited to cost reduction and quality improvement. At the same time, they equate being innovative with being different. This is wrong on both counts. Focusing on the similar, the shared and the common will provide a stronger platform for scalable transformation than trying to be different ever will.

Looking to the past to predict what is going to happen in the future doesn’t always work, but in this case, I think the hard lessons learned by Google could speed up progress in the automotive industry.

What is Android Fragmentation?

If you’re an iPhone, user let me explain what’s going on with the fragmentation in the Android market – this problem doesn’t exist with iPhones. When Apple issues an update, it goes out to pretty much everyone. 76 percent of users are on iOS 9, 17 percent on iOS 8, and just 7 percent are on earlier versions. This isn’t the case with Android. Today, only 4.9 percent of all devices use the new Android 7.0 and 7.1 nougat, running at 31.2 percent 6.0 Marshmallow, 31 percent use Android 5 Lollipop and the rest uses older versions. These are the current statistics from the official Android Developer website.

Android is fragmented, even today, but what Google has figured out with their latest handset, the Pixel, is the same lesson that we need the automotive industry to learn.

Google makes their own phones. Until this year it was called the Nexus, and since Google only builds software, they partner with a different hardware manufacturer every year. This year they rebranded the Nexus handset as the Pixel, and this is significant because it signals a change in philosophy. This is the first time that Google has taken control of creating part of the hardware, specifically the camera module. Google finally realized that to deliver the ultimate customer experience the hardware and software need to be developed together.

Google Pixel & Pixel XL

The Pixel delivers an uncompromising user experience and the low light camera performance is the best on the market. Taking good photos isn’t just about putting in a good camera module. We’ve seen time and time again that phones with the same sensors don’t produce the same quality photos. Much of the success comes as a result of the software capabilities and post processing brought to the table.

It took Google 8 phones to figure out that Google needed to develop the software and hardware together; working with a 3rd party wasn’t good enough. Google iterates their handsets yearly and for argument’s sake, let’s say that the automotive industry can learn as quickly as Google, but instead of yearly cycles, it take them 4 years to create a new car. This means that they’ll need 32 (?!) years to get the user experience right. Of course, we hope that automotive will leapfrog cycles because it can learn from the mistakes in the tech sector. Regardless, what we’re left with today is a system that resembles the early days of Android.

I’m not saying that Google has fixed the fragmentation of Android, but what I am saying is that the development of the hardware and software together is what has lead to an experience that puts the user first.

It’s easy to draw parallels between Android & Automotive. How many car models are on the market? Android has over 24,000 different types of handsets currently on the market and, like automotive, the experience is nowhere near uniform across the ecosystem.

Icons & navigation methods in each car are different in the same way that they differ between each phone manufacturer. One of the biggest problems with the fragmentation of Android is that app developers didn’t know how to create a uniform experience across each handset. This is where Apple has the advantage. They started with just one phone and everyone knew what the standards were to develop for it. In this tight framework, the application experience on iOS put Android to shame, but at the cost of openness and customization.

Before we take a deep dive on the car itself, some personal backstory and the story of my realization…

I’m going to level with you, the last car I actually owned was a 1995 Mazda 626, it had an audio cassette player and I was very proud of my mixtape collection. I sent it to scrap yard before I moved to Asia 8 years ago. I have been happily disconnected from traditional car culture (gridlock, sky high insurance, oil changes and trips to the mechanic) ever since. I have embraced my city girl roots. Car sharing and my bicycle are the lifeblood of my commute.

Work-wise, as Mobile collided with everything and innovation was only being found at the intersection between industries, I couldn’t ignore automotive. I’ve been making an effort for about two years to close the gap between where my coverage has been focused on the future of the automotive industry, things like the cognitive car or e-mobility and what is actually shipping on the road today.

As a Canadian, taking road-trips are pretty much built into my DNA, so when I was given the opportunity to drive to Geneva for the Auto Show I leaped at the chance. (Did you know you can drive across Switzerland in 7 hours?! To a Canadian this is baffling.)

Audi blew me away with a brand new Audi A5 Coupe with every bell and whistle, lane assist, cruise control, Qi Wireless Charging pad and a heads up display that was paired with a sweet sultry voice that quickly became my favorite feature — and the one where I most acutely felt the fragmentation in the automotive industry.

When Fragmentation becomes painfully obvious

Heads Up Display in A5 Coupe somewhere in Switzerland, Adpative Cruise Control is the Green Icon

I loved the Heads Up Display (HUD): it showed me where I needed to go, which exit I should take in the roundabout and on a road trip, this was everything. The HUD is convenient, but it’s also a safer solution than a having to look over at the center consol where the secondary display usually lives. No matter how well designed that display is, having information directly in your field of view is better.

Having said that, I felt a pit of real sadness when I switched over to Android Auto and I lost navigation on my dear friend HUD. The two systems don’t talk! The car doesn’t even share connectivity with the phone when plugged in by USB. The divide is real, the ecosystems only superficially overlap, and like so much of what’s going on in the car, it feels like features are being added to checkboxes or say that they have it and not to really enhance the user experience.

I understand that the car maker needs to be a part of delivering services to the car and they don’t want to just hand it all over to Apple or Google, but doing something badly just to say you can do it isn’t good enough. And for those who are going to tell me that Android Auto or Apple Car Play are enough, you’re clearly driving a 1995 Mazda 626. If your car has limited capabilities sure, they are fantastic, but once you’ve tasted the possibility of integrations sweet, sweet offering, good enough isn’t good enough.

My biggest complaint about the fragmentation is that it caused me to get lost. I had the address in my phone but I wanted to HUD to show me the navigation. So I plugged a very long German address in, 8 options came up and thought I had picked the right one. Had I been able to send the address to the car or had Android Auto been able to access the HUD, I wouldn’t have been so inconvenienced. An hour out of the way, it was 9pm at night after 7 hours of driving and I ended up on a road that had 25 min of switchbacks in the fog! Thankfully I had a song on repeat, a car that could corner like it was on rails and fog lights that made the forest light up like a film with hobbits. I was lost in the woods, but at least it was in an A5 Coupe.

Addresses and navigation are my biggest complaint and the one where the consumer experience is being forgotten. Are there apps out there where you can send addresses from maps or your calendar to the car, you bet! It just wasn’t available in the one I was driving.

The devil is in the details

There were so many little things that started to drive me crazy the longer I spend on my road trip. Audi Connect is cool – it connects you to a host of services – I can talk to the car and say I’m hungry and it will show me nearby restaurants. But like the feature where it can show where the nearest gas stations are and their fuel price, you can’t add a destination into your existing route. Thanks for showing me where it is, but I need to figure out how to get there. No matter what they say, the last mile is missing.

And again, the car will recognize my key and adjust everything just the way I like it, but it doesn’t connect to the Dynamic Air Suspension. This means it doesn’t actually customize the driving experience, which is arguably the key experience in driving.

For those of you that don’t know, Dynamic Air Suspension changes the driving behavior of the car through settings. Comfort lets you have a smoother drive, dynamic is for tighter more reactive driving and you can raise the car for off-roading. Personally, I liked to have Comfort suspension with a dynamic steering wheel: the in hand feeling like I’m doing something badass but the reality that I don’t want to feel it in my seat.

Playing music also seems to be harder than it needed to be, I couldn’t stream music from my phone even though I was connected by Bluetooth to Audi Media. but you know what the shittiest standard for sharing music is? Bluetooth! I couldn’t get it working (and yes, my job is “technology journalist” so the average joe doesn’t stand a chance). Maybe if there had been an NFC tag to push the pairing this might have made me feel better, but when your phone says it’s connected to Audi Media and nothing happens, it’s the stupid car’s fault. The reality is, you blame the car. You don’t blame the ecosystem’s lack of standards and the car’s much slower update cycles.

The native music player was very basic, preloading all your favorite music is a good strategy, but I felt let down when there was no intelligence in sorting that music. When you choose to play a similar song it simply plays all the same songs from that artist. You can choose to play music by genre, but it’s just another example of a step not thought all the way through.

Digitalization of the Cockpit

This was my first time driving with no speed limit and quite the experience in a fully loaded cockpit. The lights by the side mirrors flashed, letting me know that there was a car in my blind spot. To top it all off there was the HUD with it’s dancing icons in on my windshield. I was going for it the fast lane, and a car pulled in front of me to merge into the convoy and it was a little close –  for just a second an orange icon appeared. It was two cars and wifi symbol, but it was literally just a second so I couldn’t take a closer look to try to figure it out. Of course, it was letting me know that I was following too closely and that there is another car in close proximity to the radar system. But in that moment, I laughed to myself and I wondered about all the things this icon could mean: Was my car getting beamed up? Was a small car was landing on my car? Was my car was sharing wifi with the cars around it?

The fight for standardization

I was very surprised to find out that the icons that appear on your dashboard aren’t standardized. I was poking around the net to try to see if I could find a series of icons that could show the evolution of the of the adaptive driving, but unlike the tech sector, the automotive industry isn’t interested in digital design. In tech changing an icon is newsworthy, when Apple announced that its icons are “Squircle” shaped (that’s a square circle, in case you missed it), the internet nearly broke.

Even the Emoji is standardized and there is actually a non-profit Emoji consortium that regulates and approves new Emoji’s. It’s not like automotive doesn’t get it, road signs around the world are standardized.

There is a shining beacon of hope in the industry, it’s HERE Maps. Back in 2015 HERE was sold to a consortium of German car makers, Daimler, MWC & Audi, but the membership keeps growing. The fact that several automotive makers got together and agreed on something…anything to do with industry standardization feels like a minor miracle.

HERE has a long way to go, this was a big step, but if you want to see just how much fundamental work there is left to do: HERE Maps is working standardize the format in which the information comes out of the car. That’s right folks, the automotive industry doesn’t even export data in the same format!

Until the industry starts to agree on standards the consumer is going to be stuck with compromise. Automotive has the potential to learn from the mistakes made by the tech sector, the very valuable lesson that hardware and software need to be developed in unison.

As I lean back in the comfortable seat of the A5 Coupe, I know that the flexibility of the infotainment system isn’t going to seriously impact someone’s decision to buy a car, yet. As cars get smarter we’re going to have to consider creating modular systems and the first step will be setting some ground rules.  There is an opportunity in the industry that the top tier automotive makers have left vacant and HERE Maps seems to be the only one trying to fill that void with reason.

Where things are really starting to get interesting is looking at China, who has the ability to legislate in ways the rest of the world can only dream of. Autonomous drive in China has a very aggressive roadmap and if today’s heavyweights aren’t careful they may lose the option to sit at the head of the table setting those ground rules.