Apple helps blur the line between Silicon Valley and Detroit

Apple is stepping up its investment in connected cars with a new and improved initiative called CarPlay. The Posts's Hayley Tsukayama explains how CarPlay works, why it's such a big deal and what it means for Apple moving forward. (Jason Aldag and Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

For years, we’ve been hearing of all the cool technology that’s going into cars, mostly in the form of infotainment and better navigation. In its search for growth markets, Silicon Valley continues to push further and further into the automobile sector, and that’s changing the way we think about our cars. In the future, we could be talking about “Apple cars” and “Google cars” and “Microsoft cars” the same way we once talked about Ford, GM and the other icons of Detroit.

Take, for example, the latest linkup of a company in Silicon Valley with the automobile industry. At the Geneva Auto Show, Apple announced plans to partner with Ferrari, Volvo and Mercedes on “CarPlay,” a new offering that brings Apple’s popular mobile operating system (iOS) into the car. CarPlay, which is the updated version of its “iOS in the Car” vision that Apple touted at last year’s WWDC developer conference, enables iPhones to plug into cars so that drivers can call up maps, make calls and request music with voice commands or a touch on a vehicle’s dashboard screen. If you have an Apple iPhone 5, 5C, or 5S, you will be able to control infotainment (third-party music apps) and navigation (maps) in your Ferrari, Volvo or Mercedes. Apple calls it “the best iPhone experience on four wheels.”

It’s easy to see how CarPlay has the potential to change the way automobile makers market new cars to the world. In addition to factors such as “MPG,” automakers will ask us to keep in mind whether our smartphones are compatible with our cars. If you have a Google Android phone, you might opt for a car from one of the automakers in Google’s Open Automotive Alliance, announced at this year’s CES in Vegas. If you have an Apple iPhone, you’ll probably opt for autos that offer CarPlay. The fact that Apple has signed up two of the premier luxury automakers in the world — Mercedes and Ferrari — signals that Apple wants to ensure that its tech offerings continue to receive a premium pricing.

But think bigger than just a battle between two rival tech companies. We’re on the cusp of thinking of our automobiles as pure technology offerings. Engines, steering wheels and dashboards have been replaced by hardware, software and operating systems. Apple’s new CarPlay really aims at turning millions of cars into just another (albeit expensive) element in the iPhone ecosystem

As a result, we’re increasingly thinking of our automobiles as something that should integrate with our busy tech lifestyles. We want the music and entertainment that we’ve downloaded to our smartphones to be available in our vehicles. We expect that the navigation systems we use in everyday life — whether it’s Google Maps or Apple Maps — to be the same navigation systems on our automobile dashboards.

At the same time, we’re turning into a nation of ridesharers, rather than ride-buyers, so we care even less about the brand of the automobile we’re driving, and more about the technology provider making it all possible. Most significantly, we’re increasingly comfortable with the notion of a self-driving car, in which all the aspects of the real-car experience that Detroit’s automakers used to tout — the feel of the steering wheel, the response of the brakes, the revving of the engine (and, oh, for good measure, the feel of your hair blowing in the wind) — are fading into the background as product differentiators.

This is actually a sea-change in thinking. If we’re no longer the ones driving the car (and it’s computers doing the driving), do we really care if the car is manufactured in Germany or in China, as long as the technology is from a tech company that we trust? If we’re investing more and more in the infotainment and navigation of the vehicle, do we care more about the factory in Detroit or the R&D lab in Silicon Valley? This could be the final blurring of Silicon Valley and Detroit, where we view automobiles as just really expensive smartphones tricked out with cool apps and four wheels.

The idea of buying a car solely because you’ve fallen in love with an operating system (or an offering such as CarPlay) may strike some as far-fetched. Okay. But tell that to Joaquin Phoenix’s character, who falls in love with an operating system in the Oscar-nominated Spike Jonze film “Her.” In the future, we will all have a “Her” moment, in which we form deep associations with what’s inside our cars, not just what’s outside. We will pay less attention to the engine under the hood, and more attention to what kind of technology is under the dashboard. And that has very important implications for any tech giant — whether it’s Apple or Google or Microsoft  – that’s thinking about making a deeper foray into the automotive sector.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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