Volvo hands in­fo­tain­ment sys­tems job to Google

Houston Chronicle - - BUSINESS - By Russ Mitchell

As the years go by, it gets harder to tell one car brand from an­other. Op­ti­mal aero­dy­namic de­sign pro­duces sim­i­lar shapes. En­gine tech­nol­ogy is highly re­li­able and ad­vanced in ways that most con­sumers don’t un­der­stand, or don’t care to un­der­stand. For au­tomak­ers, finding ways to dif­fer­en­ti­ate their prod­ucts is harder and more im­por­tant than ever.

One way is by im­prov­ing their in­fo­tain­ment of­fer­ings. Any­one who has driven a late-model car can at­test that the cur­rent state of in­fo­tain­ment sys­tems is abysmal con­fus­ing, dis­tract­ing, poorly thought out.

Not want­ing to give up control to the tech com­pa­nies, most au­tomak­ers patch to­gether pieces from dif­fer­ent ven­dors to de­sign in­fo­tain­ment sys­tems on their own.

Volvo, which ad­mits its own in­fo­tain­ment ef­forts have hurt the brand’s rank­ings in owner sat­is­fac­tion sur­veys, is tak­ing a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. Ear­lier this year, it an­nounced a part­ner­ship with Google to be­come the first au­tomaker to in­te­grate its An­droid smart­phone op­er­at­ing sys­tem into the ve­hi­cle it­self - no phone nec­es­sary. The sys­tem will be in­cor­po­rated into new Volvos grad­u­ally over the next three years.

The Times sat down at the Los An­ge­les Auto Show to talk about the sys­tem with three Volvo ex­ec­u­tives: Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Hakan Sa­muels­son; Hen­rik Green, head of re­search and de­vel­op­ment; and Marten Leven­stam, head of prod­uct strat­egy. The fol­low­ing tran­script was edited for length and clar­ity.

Q: Why is in­fo­tain­ment so im­por­tant?

Sa­muels­son: Our con­sumer ex­pe­ri­ence is what will dif­fer­en­ti­ate the cars, not the chrome.

It used to be, you’d buy a new car, the neigh­bors would come by. You’d open the hood and look at the en­gine. Now they go to the car and look at the cen­ter stack. How’s the nav­i­ga­tion? Does it have voice control? We want to bring peo­ple’s dig­i­tal lives into the cars. Pro­vid­ing nav­i­ga­tion with Google Maps, speech recognition . this is what con­sumers are in­ter­ested in. It’s not the hard­ware and the com­bus­tion en­gine.

An­droid Q: How Auto is this or dif­fer­ent Ap­ple CarPlay, from which let peo­ple make calls and play mu­sic through their cars?

Green: The car will come pre­loaded with An­droid. Google Maps, Google As­sis­tant, Google Play Store. You don’t have to take the phone out of your pocket. It will be built in.

Q: That in­cludes speech recognition, right? It’s a weak spot for many car­mak­ers. Google’s very good at it.

Green: The num­ber of users who use speech in­stead of touch con­trols will in­crease a lot. As de­vel­op­ment con­tin­ues and we com­bine speech with other func­tions, you can start to re­design the en­tire in­ter­face from scratch.

Q: Most car­mak­ers are try­ing to do this on their own. Why are you turn­ing to Google?

Green: We came to the con­clu­sion a while back we want cars to be part of a larger ecosys­tem. We saw the lead­ers of the tech world who would es­sen­tially own the ecosys­tem. We saw the enor­mous amount of in­vest­ment and skill. As an auto man­u­fac­turer we had no chance to com­pete. We took the de­ci­sion let’s go for it.

Q: Why not Ap­ple too?

Sa­muels­son: We’d love to work with Ap­ple but they don’t want to. (Note: If Ap­ple is work­ing on a sim­i­lar pro­gram with an au­tomaker, it hasn’t been made pub­lic.)

Au­tomak­ers seem re­luc­tant to hand over control of po­ten­tially prof­itable data streams and cus­tomer in­for­ma­tion to tech com­pa­nies.

Leven­stam: We are in the busi­ness of sell­ing cars for profit. Mak­ing our cars more ef­fec­tive by in­te­grat­ing Google ser­vices will make the cars more at­trac­tive and we will sell more cars, and that’s the revenue stream.

Anna Hal­lams / Bloomberg

Volvo cars will now fea­ture the An­droid smart­phone op­er­at­ing sys­tem.

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