OEMs vs big tech: who will win the automotive infotainment battle?

18th September 2023
Paige West

Today, control of the vehicle infotainment system is being contested. OEM embedded infotainment systems aren’t delivering consumer experiences at the pace and with the content users expect, yet smartphone projection solutions can cause confusion and leave the door wide open for big tech companies to own the relationship with vehicle users.

HARMAN’s Jens Beckmann, Senior Director of the HARMAN Ignite Store at the Samsung-owned technology company, discusses the benefits and challenges of developing automotive software in-house and best practice for OEMs looking to deliver consumer experiences at automotive grade.

The demand for seamless digital experiences in the car continues to rise. Consumers want more from their vehicles; experiences beyond just getting from point A to point B. They want to take their lives into the car and stay connected to their music, their contacts, their favourite brands, and much more – demanding an experience akin to consumer electronics from their vehicle. 

A recent HARMAN study on the in-cabin environment found that 80% of consumers are using technology more than ever. As such, the vehicle infotainment system continues to be a priority for automotive manufacturers. However, the study also discovered that 40% felt that the technology is getting too complex. A major issue is the disconnect and confusion of having both an embedded OEM-developed infotainment system and a smartphone projection solution – Android Auto or Apple CarPlay – running in the vehicle and moving between these two systems.

This leads automakers to a difficult decision when it comes to the infotainment system. Do they develop an in-house solution and maintain control of the customer in-vehicle experience, or do they utilise the offerings from major global technology companies and hand over control?

It’s a pivotal decision for vehicle manufacturers; one that involves many considerations that will have an impact on business way on down the line.

To build or buy?

The in-house development of an infotainment system can allow OEMs to deliver better, integrated and on-brand digital experiences in the vehicle. Obviously, safety is of critical importance and creating an intuitive solution avoids customer confusion and distraction. Looking ahead, as cars become more connected to the world around them, controlling the flow of data will create significant innovation and monetisation opportunities for OEMs.

However, often OEMs don’t have the resources and software developer expertise in-house to make this a success. Trying to recreate a familiar mobile experience for an automotive environment is a challenge. To add further complexity, deciding not to offer smartphone projection systems can be off-putting for customers keen for this familiarity.

Where legally permitted, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay enable smartphone content to be mirrored via the installed infotainment system. While adjusted for the in-cabin experience, neither is optimal. It is feasible for OEMs to continue offering both systems within a car, but it can cause confusion, impair the consumer experience, and distract from the driving task at hand. If the embedded system is Android and the driver is using Android Automotive, that could cause even more confusion. Both navigation screens would look the same, but one may have an active route while the other doesn’t.

One OEM that has made the difficult decision is General Motors (GM). It has confirmed that it plans to phase out Apple CarPlay and Android Auto technologies in its future electric vehicles. Instead, it will develop its own solution using Google’s Android Automotive platform. Tesla has also taken a ‘no projection’ stance. But migrating away from projection is not that simple. Ford, along with other OEMs, plan to continue offering projection options as it believes its customers appreciate the capability.

While deeper integration of such solutions could provide a better user experience in years to come, it’s unlikely that OEMs will provide the necessary application programming interfaces (APIs) to the likes of Google and Apple, which would allow them access to the car’s central system.

Monetisation opportunities

Connectivity creates new opportunities for long-lasting revenue streams from vehicles. Market research shows there is significant consumer appeal to features or applications that can be added on-demand post purchase or activated throughout the lifespan of the vehicle.

However, through projection, big tech players are positioning themselves to control the primary relationship with the end user. At present, it’s not clear how monetisation opportunities will develop within the car, but as such solutions bypass the OEM, it is likely these companies would become the main beneficiary of such opportunities.

If OEMs maintain control of the infotainment system, its data, and the direct relationship with the vehicle user, they can create better experiences for consumers and develop appropriate content that can lead to targeted subscriptions or advertisements, helping to generate these new revenue streams.

With embedded systems offering significant advantages, but also having the potential to cause major resourcing headaches for OEMs, HARMAN has used its automotive heritage – combined with the consumer technology experience and the scale of parent company Samsung – to develop a solution.

Best of both worlds

The HARMAN Ignite Store is an independent app store solution designed to help OEMs offer customers apps in a way that ensures the experience is safe and optimised for the in-vehicle environment. Drivers and passengers can install third-party apps that align with their digital lifestyle direct into the car. It is a continuously developing and expanding app ecosystem, with the likes of Spotify and what3words as early partners. But unlike projection, this solution allows OEMs to retain control of the content and functionality, ensuring the experience aligns with the OEM’s brand.

Safety is of the utmost importance, with HARMAN delivering these consumer experiences at automotive grade. As a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) based product, OEMs and third-party providers submit their apps. These go through stringent industry-standard testing and certification processes to validate them ahead of rollout via the HARMAN Ignite Store across  OEMs. Utilising its heritage and technology DNA, HARMAN can safely translate consumer experiences for the vehicle.

Importantly, the HARMAN Ignite Store allows OEMs the opportunity to design the customer experience via its own app store, having full control over its look and feel. It also enables them to retain control of data, the primary relationship with the end user, and generate revenue post-sale.

The future of infotainment control

With the benefits being numerous – for both the OEM and consumer – best practice is for OEMs to opt to retain control of in-vehicle infotainment solutions, rather than handing over control and the consumer relationship to the major tech companies. But, with solutions such as HARMAN Ignite Store offering all the functionality without the resourcing and financing issues, it makes sense for OEMs to purchase such technologies rather than develop them themselves, as in-house development offers neither a strategic advantage nor differentiation.

One such OEM benefitting from this approach today is Audi. HARMAN has created an Application Store together with Volkswagen Group’s software company, CARIAD, designed for select Audi vehicles, with additional Volkswagen Group brands to follow at a later time. We expect this trend to continue and benefit consumers as they will see additional options for connectivity that aren’t limited to just a few ecosystems.

While OEM support of projection won’t disappear in the short term, over time it’s anticipated that embedded options will provide enhanced, brand befitting seamless consumer experiences with less friction, encouraging users to adopt these embedded systems over smartphone projection offerings. 

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