Ford and Toyota Partner to Keep Apple, Google at Bay

Ford infotainment

One of the most compelling reasons not to buy a new Toyota is the stark absence of either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. If you’ve sniffed around automotive news headlines from the past few years’ CES shows, you know more and more pundits are beginning to view cars as appliances for daily life, and the ever-growing infotainment screens found in new cars are central to this shift.

Carmakers aren’t blind to this, and they recognize that as consumer interest moves backward from the machinery found under the hood to the technology found between the front seats, their research and development teams will need to continue to innovate in order to command strong sales figures. As Google and Apple continue to solidify their position in the infotainment game, Ford and Toyota have partnered to retain their piece of the pie—and the valuable control that comes with it.

Four years ago, Ford released its AppLink software’s code to the masses, opening up the opportunity for developers to inspect, tweak, and add to its infotainment system’s scaffolding. The goal then was to bolster Ford’s Sync system by letting outside software engineers code new apps and improve its existing apps.

Shortly thereafter, however, Google and Apple released Android Auto and CarPlay, which quickly outstripped the user experience provided by Ford’s Sync system, as well as the proprietary systems offered by Toyota, Mazda, Subaru, and others. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Google and Apple have the smartphone market virtually to themselves, and Android Auto and CarPlay both earn supporters based on how well they mimic a driver’s smartphone interface on the car’s infotainment screen. Ford seems to be hedging its bet by now offering CarPlay and Android Auto on the Sync 3 system, but it’s not giving up on AppLink (which it renamed SmartDeviceLink—or “SDL”—in 2013), either.

As the Silicon Valley companies begin to run away with the automotive infotainment market, Ford and Toyota have now partnered to launch the SmartDeviceLink consortium. Essentially, the goal of the non-profit consortium is to recruit enough automakers to make developing an app for an SDL interface worth the time. Before SDL, a programmer would need to tailor code for each individual automaker. With SDL, they’ll need to write the code for only one near-universal system.

Fuji Heavy Industries, which owns Subaru, has expressed interest in the consortium, as have Mazda, the Peugeot Citroën Group, and Suzuki.

The appeal of SDL to automakers is clear: It affords much more control to the companies actually making the vehicles than Apple CarPlay or Android Auto do. The code will work with the SDL framework across brands, but how it is applied to the vehicle’s infotainment system’s interface will be up to the automaker. This makes things easier for developers while keeping the car companies in charge of user experience.

In many ways, and at least for now, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are superior systems to Ford’s Sync, Toyota’s Entune, and others, like Mazda’s Connect infotainment system (just ask Nicole Wakelin what she thought of the 2017 Mazda3’s system). Google Maps is the de facto industry standard for navigation, Spotify has over 100 million users, and Siri is becoming a household name. With the SDL consortium, car-makers are betting one more hand they can keep Silicon Valley at bay.

Should automakers continue with their own infotainment systems, or would you rather have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto?

-Matt Smith

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