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Audi and Google: High-Tech Collaboration in the Car

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I was in the audience at the New York Auto Show circa 2010 when Ford and Microsoft teamed up on Sync voice commands for the automaker’s entertainment system. Nothing huge has come out of that so far, but Microsoft imagines big things to come:

For example, when drivers enter the garage in the morning, their connected cars might have already used cloud-based services and location awareness to warm itself to the preferred temperature, tuned the radio to the same stations they had been listening to while getting ready, and signaled the garage door to close at the appropriate time without the driver taking any action.

I’m ready for that. But let’s just get the MyFord Touch system working properly. Consumer Reports has chronicled the saga of unhappy owners, with such problems as misheard voice commands, and screens unresponsive to the touch, blank or freezing. The complaints tend to lessen as people—especially older drivers—get more familiar with their new audio controls.

The Audi MMI 3G environment, showing the scrolling that can get clunky. (Audi photo)Automakers are signing deals with big tech companies left and right, and although some of them never seem to get much beyond the press release stage, others hold promise for finally creating new dimensions in auto infotainment.

I have hopes for the new deal between Audi and Google that will likely be announced next week at the giant Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The plan is to use Android’s software to develop new in-car entertainment systems, reports Automotive News.

This is a good development, and it likely grew out of Audi's use of Google Earth for navigation--it takes you into the real world, and out of that flat landscape we all know from searches past. Audi is a very tech-savvy company—I recently enjoyed an A7 TDI with a 3G connection, and dig this: The new A3 benefits from “the [dual-core] Tegra 2 series T 20 processor…with 1.2 GHz clock frequency and high-speed graphics card.”  But the interfaces for Audi’s high-end MMI audio systems are typically German, meaning overly complex and too dependent on scrolling through multiple menus. It can take five clicks to find a radio station.

Android’s contribution could be to humanize the audio system and make it easier to use, as well as increase its interaction with the cloud and Internet—already an Audi focus. The apps now on Android phones could soon have auto versions.

Apple's iOS in the Car. The idea is to fully integrate your phone (read: Apple's phone) into your driving experience. (Apple photo)Apple is big on collaborating with car companies, too, especially with the “iOS in the Car” system. How about this? “Text messages appear right on your car’s display. Siri can read them to you while you listen over your car’s speakers. And to reply, just dictate to Siri.”

That’s much, much better than trying to read texts on your cellphone while driving—a quick way to end up dead—but it’s probably better to just forget about texting until your feet are planted on the ground, or someone else is driving.

iOS in the Car is designed to fully integrate your Apple phone into the car. Instead of trying to punch those tiny buttons, you’ll use the car’s controls (and Siri for voice commands, of course) to make phone calls, access Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” and—if you must—send and receive messages.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally with (on screen) Microsoft's Steve Ballmer. Their partnership is ongoing. (Ford photo)Apple, Google and Microsoft see a whole new revenue stream from automakers increasingly focused on keeping buyers happy with can-you-top-this in-car entertainment. The car guys are admitting that by going it alone they’re unlikely to produce exciting systems.

You could think of these partnerships as the successor to deals marrying automakers with Bose or Bang and Olufsen. That sold cars, too, but everyone agrees that the way forward includes a lot of cloud and internet interaction. And that, inevitably, means the roads lead to Apple, Google and Microsoft. Take a look at this video, which shows what the collaboration between Audi's navigation system and Google Earth has yielded:

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