Is Google Rolling Into Auto Industry?

Google Inc is making its way into the automotive industry in several deals. One could require the Mountain View search-engine to work more closely with rival Microsoft. Ford plans to add Google Maps to its Sync in-car communications platform; available by June, on all 2010 and 2010 models equipped with the Sync system, powered by Microsoft software. The latest Send to Sync features allows drivers to send destinations over Bluetooth in Google Maps to their cars through an application called Sync Traffic, Directions, and Information. Ford is not the only automaker giving Google deeper integration into their cars.

OnStar subscribers now have an option to search for and identify destinations using Google Maps, and send them to the Turn by Turn Navigation Service in their vehicles. This feature becomes available later this month on all GM vehicles beginning with the 2006 model year. It integrates with OnStar Destination Download to send destinations directly to the vehicle’s screen-based navigation system. The deal expands on Google’s relationship with OnStar and the automotive industry announced in May 2010. The two unveiled mapping & navigation features on the Android platform for the Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle.

Google In Auto Industry
Google In Auto Industry

From the map screen, owners can use Google search by voice to locate a destination with their Android handset, and then see where that destination is related to the car. OnStar has a module that ensures 24/7 communication between the car, OnStar’s back office, and Android phones. Dana Fecher, an OnStar EV Lab manager, told MediaPost in an interview last month that future features will include location-based tools through OnStar’s Turn by Turn services. “Most of the features we will focus on in the future include location-based services and constant connectivity, sensors enable that accurate position of the car. We’re just getting started”, Fecher says, he works with the Advanced Development of Electric Vehicles Group at GM.

Google Maps has become the dominant tool for travelers, owning 15.50% market share, according to May 2010 Experian Hitwise data. MapQuest follows with 9.24%, and Expedia at 3.24%. “It’s obvious that Google wants to be known as a service that consumers can access not only through PCs, tablets, mobile phones but also in their cars,” says Trip Chowdhry, managing director at Global Equities Research. “They are emerging not only as a discovery tool but rather points of interest for local search. Think of it as pay per action vs. pay per click.” That strategy might work well for Google (GOOG). For the 2011 model year, OnStar Directions and Connections service is standard on all OnStar equipped, GM retail vehicles. Since launch, OnStar has delivered more than 54 million Turn by Turn Navigation routes, currently averaging more than 1.4 million per month. GM is not the only automaker integrating Google Maps, Audi is working with Google on a similar deal. Audi’s MMI System already became the first automotive system to provide 3D navigation powered by Google Earth. Google Inc announced in December that it was working to bring local search into cars. Audi A8 2010 became the first car to bring Google Earth directly into the vehicle and combine it with a set of useful Google-services. Microsoft on Monday opened its SDK kit to third-party developers, allowing them to build out apps in Bing Maps.

Android likes Internet radio

From Mercedes to Ford, and now GM, automakers are making it easier to connect smart phones to the car. The companies are looking beyond hands-free calling to making it easier to play Internet streaming music services like Pandora over the car radio. Among Web-based music services; such as and Slacker, Pandora is the undisputed leader with about 750,000 songs and over 40 million listeners. The free version lets listeners customize channels based on favorite artists (put in The Doors, for example, Pandora will create a station that features Jim Morrison as well as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones).

Many fans already plug in their iPhones or MP3 players to play music over a car stereo, but drivers can be easily distracted looking down at the devices to change tracks or stations. So now — automakers, stereo companies, and software developers are introducing new ways to integrate services like Pandora and let drivers use existing in-car controls to program the music. Ford is taking an aggressive approach with the new version of its Sync system, which will appear first this summer on the 2011 Fiesta.

The new software will allow Google Android and Blackberry applications to take advantage of Sync controls letting drivers use the steering wheel buttons and voice commands to change songs or music channels. The first apps Ford has approved include a Pandora app, a podcasting service called Stitcher, and a Twitter feed reader. However, Consumers don’t have to buy a new car to get the new features. Alpine already offers a car stereo, the $400 iDA-X305S Digital Media Receiver with Pandora Link, that uses a special iPhone compatible cable to hook up Pandora fans.

The receiver lets listeners dial through their customized stations and give songs a thumbs up or thumbs down by pushing in and turning the stereo’s front dial. Unfortunately, the drivers still have to look down at the stereo to switch songs. Pioneer has gone a step further with its $1,200 AVIC-X920BT. With an optional $50 cable, the system uses voice commands to change Pandora channels. Don’t like what you are hearing on your Frankie Valli channel, just say, Play the Beatles and it switches channels without lifting your hands from the wheel. The AVIC-X920BT also includes a 6.1-inch LCD touch screen, Turn by Turn navigation, and an AM/FM/CD player.

Now, traditional radio broadcasters are also jumping on the Internet streaming music trend and realize it’s coming to the car. Clear Channel already has a free application called iheartradio for Blackberry, Android and iPhone owners. The app is a virtual tuner for Clear Channel’s network of over 750 AM and FM stations nationwide, and the company says it is helping ratings, with the online streaming service adding about 15% more listeners to its total audience.

There’s also a wave of apps that aggregate stations streaming from around the world, giving drivers access not only to local radio stations but also to farflung stations from Paris to Nairobi. Livio Car Internet Radio is one of the latest. The $4.99 iPhone app that turns the handset into a digital tuner capable of pulling in everything from Celtic tunes to big band numbers from 42,000 AM/FM & Internet-only stations worldwide. It presents a new world of music choices for those behind the wheel, where most radio listening is done. But Chris Preuss, president of GM’s OnStar, says his company is taking a more cautious approach and only allowing smart phones to send commands to the new Chevy Volt when the car is not moving. “We need to focus on safety and security first,” Preuss emphasizes, “until we know exactly what effect it will have on potential driver distractions.”

Chevrolet’s Volt with Android

Ford has done a stellar job of integrating social media both into its marketing campaigns and into its vehicles. But as of today, there is a new sheriff in town: Chevrolet. With the Volt, Chevrolet’s new electric vehicle, the company is rolling out excellent integration with the Android OS and OnStar that will allow for voice-activated features and mobile-to-car communication. Chevrolet added a navigation tab to its Volt mobile app for Android. From this tab, Volt owners will be able to see both their personal location and their car’s location in Google Maps. Maps is also used for voice-activated searches on the Android devices that then feed data to OnStar.

We are not sure when some of these new features will be available, but at launch the Volt will include the ability to receive SMS messages for car battery charging notifications, remotely start the vehicle and more. The current OnStar mobile app is functional on the Droid & BlackBerry Storm. Volt Marketing Director, Tony DiSalle said in a statement that the new Android-integrated features “add to the suite of mobile application features for Volt that gives Volt owners a personal connection to their car.” Does the Volt’s mobile integration make the Fiesta’s voice-activated Pandora and Twitter capabilities look like parlor tricks? Or do you think Chevrolet still has a lot to do to catch up with Ford in the web-based technology area?