Google's ambitions for Android in the car go far beyond Android Auto, and it just laid those plans out at its I/O conference this afternoon.
The company is demonstrating a Maserati Ghibli that has been completely retrofitted in partnership with Qualcomm to have a 15-inch, 4K center touchscreen (mounted vertically, a lot like a Tesla) and a 720p digital instrument cluster. The car isn't a production vehicle — it doesn't even really involve Maserati or its parent company, Fiat Chrysler — but it's intended to show what's possible when Android is running everything in the car from navigation to heating and cooling to the speedometer.
"Android wasn't historically built to be an embedded infotainment platform. It was really built for phones," says Patrick Brady, lead engineer on Android Auto. With Android N, he says, that's changed — Google is able to provide a "turn-key platform" for turning a car into a connected car. This pits Google head-to-head against products like BlackBerry's QNX, which is used by a number of major automakers deploying next-gen infotainment systems (like Audi with its virtual cockpit). All the key components of a modern car are supported: AM/FM radio, HVAC, Bluetooth, instrument clusters, and so on.
Brady says that the Android-based car platform will be open-source and that automakers can customize it however they like. If that sounds familiar, it should: it's not much different than the way Android works on phones, where UI elements and built-in apps differ from OEM to OEM, but all phones can generally run the same ecosystem of downloaded apps. Cars running Android will behave the same way — expect implementations from different automakers to look and feel unique, with different design elements and display types. (Brady also says that these cars can offer Apple's CarPlay if they so choose, because CarPlay and Android Auto are effectively just apps sitting on top of the underlying platform.)
Offering automakers full customization is important for adoption, because many automakers have made it clear that they want to own and control the core experience, which they consider an extension of the car brand itself.
In speaking late last year with Phil Abram, GM's head of infotainment, he spells out how some of the world's biggest automakers approach it — for him, Android branding isn't important to the driver, but he wouldn't rule out adopting Android under the hood if it gets the job done. "We're not an operating system company. We aren't going to write our own operating system, so we will always be getting an operating system from somebody, whether it's Linux-based, or it's QNX-based, or it's WinCE-based, or it's Android-based," he said at the time.
It's not yet clear which automakers will be using Android N to run their cars, though, and no announcements are being made today. "We’re working with a bunch of car partners," Brady teases, only saying that that they hope to bring it to market "as soon as possible."