What we didn’t see at CES: A Google-powered dashboard for the connected car

As we expected, CES moonlighted this year as the Las Vegas Auto Show. We saw the unveiling of several 4G cars and a fair share of autonomous driving technology. We saw smartphone chipmakers vie to become auto-parts suppliers, and even a handful of new connected car apps.

But the thing we all wanted to see didn’t show up in any CES booth or drive out onto any casino-hotel stage. We never got a glimpse of Google’s new Android-powered dashboard. Of all the connected car news that came out of CES, an automotive version of Android has the most chance of shaking up the still nascent connected car market by spurring vibrant developer community.

Image (1) googlecar.jpg for post 76055

Google(s goog) announced the Open Automotive Alliance at CES on Monday, revealing an impressive array of partners from General Motors(s gm), Audi, Honda(s hmc) and Hyundai to Nvidia(s nvda). But after that press release hit the wires, it was silent. There was no Android infotainment system to be seen, concept or otherwise.

You might say it’s too early to expect a technology that was only just announced. But the Alliance has promised we’ll see its first wares in production cars this year. Since 2015 model year cars – including Audi’s new revamped 4G Audi A3 – this spring, Android cars should be revving their engines just around the corner.

Google is probably waiting for one of its own events to share the details on Android’s new automotive ambitions, but in the meantime we can speculate on what its deeper dive into the automotive industry means. I think it’s safe to say this is very a big deal.

Cadillac CUE

Cadillac CUE

Why? It’s not just because Google is Google, and everything it touches magically becomes significant. It’s because Google has the potential to unify — at least in part — one of the most schizophrenic aspects of the auto industry: the infotainment system.

Automakers by nature are very proprietary creatures. As Ford Motor Company(s f) Executive Chairman Bill Ford recently acknowledged in an interview with Gigaom, automakers like building things themselves, and what they don’t build they outsource to a few trusted suppliers. They design their own powertrains and transmission and fret over the upholstery on their seats. That Waldenesque philosophy led them, for better or worse — though probably worse — design their own infotainment systems.

I’ll pause here to point out that there are a lot of very familiar mobile software names in the dashboard: Microsoft(s msft) Windows 8, BlackBerry’s QNX(s bbry) and Nokia’s(s nok) Here. But these aren’t the same OSes most of us find in our phones. Their software forms the underlying code for what are very distinct infotainment systems, none of which can claim interoperability with one another.

Scattered puzzle pieces next to solved fragment

In many cases there isn’t any compatibility between cars made by the same automaker. Not only will software designed for Cadillac’s CUE system not work in the MyLink system of sister GM line Chevrolet, there’s often no compatibility between MyLink systems in different models of Chevys.

You thought the smartphone space was fragmented; well, there are a dozen major automakers, many with multiple different infotainment systems across different models. As you can imagine this a huge obstacle for an app developer. Some like Pandora(s p) have been willing to tackle it, but as a radio streaming app it has much more incentive than most to ingrain itself into the dashboard.

For the typical app developer it means joining a dozen different developer programs, each of which require separate negotiations with the automaker, and there’s no guarantee that your app will ever make into a car, given the tight restrictions automakers place on their developers and the snail-like pace at which they introduce software updates. And let’s face it, compared to smartphones, a miniscule number of connected cars are introduced every year. Developing for the vehicle market seem about as attractive as developing for BlackBerry these days.

connected car logoGoogle can help solve those problems. I say that not just because it already has the experience of building an open consumer electronics development ecosystem, but also because it’s becoming painfully obvious that no one in the auto industry can.

The only attempt at unifying the connected car OS has come from Ford and Microsoft, which have open-sourced the Sync AppLink platform. So far there have been no takers, and I doubt there ever will be. Ford, after all, is a big competitor to all of the other automakers. This story has had the same unhappy ending in the smartphone industry. Nokia(s nok) and Palm  have tried licensing their software to competitors and got nowhere.

That’s not to say that automakers won’t feel threatened. Google may be neutral, but by inviting Android into the car, they’ll face the problems in differentiating their products as smartphone makers that have embraced Android. But luckily for automakers there are a lot more ways to make your car unique than an infotainment system.