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GM will use Google’s embedded Android Automotive OS in cars starting in 2021

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A big coup for Google

GM CEO Mary Barra Holds Press Conference On Ignition Switch Recall Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

General Motors will use Google’s new Android Automotive OS to power the infotainment systems in its cars starting in 2021, the two companies announced on Thursday. That means Google Assistant, Maps, and other automotive-approved Android apps will be available in GM’s cars via the Play Store without requiring the use of an Android smartphone.

All GM brands outside of China will offer a native automotive version of Android, with plans to build on Android 10, though it won’t come to all models right away. Cars outfitted with Android Automotive OS will still allow drivers or passengers to use Apple’s CarPlay as well as the smartphone-powered version of Android Auto, GM tells The Verge. GM will share the access to some anonymized data, according to CNBC, though Google won’t be able to see any information about the way someone drives or a vehicle’s maintenance needs, according to Reuters.

GM has been building its infotainment systems on Android since 2016 when it joined several other automakers that decided to leverage Google’s open-source operating system. But automakers had to do a lot more of the software work when integrating these older Android-powered infotainment setups, which were typically forked off of older versions of the operating system. That meant they couldn’t be easily be updated or offer the same kind of access to Android Auto-approved apps via the Play Store.

Google first started showing off a new embedded version of Android a few years ago, with Volvo as the first partner. After a series of refinements, the final version of Google’s embedded infotainment system is slated to roll out for the first time on the Polestar 2 (from Volvo sub-brand Polestar) later this year. Google also has a deal to bring its infotainment system to cars made by the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance.

The new embedded Android approach allows Google to do more of the heavy lifting on the software side, while leaving the automakers with the freedom to design the OS to match their tastes. (For instance, the embedded Android system on the Polestar 2 looks and feels a lot like Volvo’s Sensus infotainment system.)

Like many other automakers, GM is in the middle of a big push to modernize its offerings in an attempt to keep pace with changing consumer preferences. The company recently announced that most of its vehicles will have a new “digital nerve system” by 2023 that can allow for the same kinds of significant over-the-air updates that Tesla has popularized. GM has also named Cadillac as the brand that will lead the company’s push into electric vehicles.

When automakers raced to add bigger and more capable screens to their cars a few years ago, they were initially resistant to the idea of allowing big tech companies to have control of those screens as well as the data that was being generated by the infotainment systems powering them. So for a while, they mostly stuck to building their own systems on platforms like Linux, Android, or Blackberry QNX.

But developing good software takes a lot of time and money, and automakers never developed a good reputation when it came to developing their own infotainment systems. As a result, pretty much every major automaker eventually relented and allowed smartphone-based solutions like CarPlay and Android Auto.

The popularity of those options seems to have inspired automakers like GM to figure out what else people might want to do inside smarter cars. They’ve piloted in-car shopping efforts, food orders, and are already trying to monetize the user data being generated by more connected cars. Allowing companies like Google to build and maintain better software that car buyers won’t hate in five years is all a part of that evolving plan.

“We’re seeing your HVAC controls and your FM radio controls and everything is moving onto the screen with software,” Android Automotive head Patrick Brady told The Verge earlier this year. “What we’re really excited about with the embedded offering for Android in the car is now we can create a single blended system, where you have Spotify and you have your HVAC controls and you have the backup camera and you have Google Maps or Waze, and it’s all one system. It takes advantage of the entire digital surface in the car. And we think we’re going to be able to strike a great balance where it feels naturally integrated into the car.”

Update September 5th, 11:00 PM ET: This article previously said Google planned to build GM’s Android Automotive OS on Android P, which is what the company said it would use on the Polestar 2 earlier this year. Google reached out after publication to say the company plans to build GM’s Android Automotive OS on Android 10. The article has been updated to reflect this.