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Does Siri in Cars Suggest a Google vs Apple Showdown?

Apple announced this week that Siri will become a part of many new vehicles. What does this mean for the automotive industry?

At Enprecis, we've frequently studied the relationship between smartphones and vehicle controls, finding that people are often more attuned to using the former. No matter how intuitive the design of an in-vehicle system, it will inevitably be compared (and probably unfavorably) to smartphone systems, which have in part become more intuitive due to their more frequent--almost incessant--use by consumers. Additionally, we've seen that technology is a major purchase driver (but a relatively easily commodified one) among different vehicle brands.

The recent announcement that Siri, the voice-activated "personal assistant" available on the iPhone 4S and beyond, would be integrated with vehicle systems for BMW, Audi, Chrysler, Honda, General Motors, Jaguar, Land Rover and Toyota, is thus an interesting development in the vehicle technology space. How will it benefit each of these brands, from a differentiation perspective, to use the same Siri technology base? How will the Siri experience be different between a Toyota Corolla and a Range Rover Evoque? 

Some cynical vehicle owners opine that this means automakers only want to charge more for technology features, while others express a preference for Bluetooth integration (itself often a finicky issue) that allows them to leverage their own smartphone as they choose, and some even suggest that Siri offer driving tips. What's closest to the truth is that automakers need differentiators, people need technology, and technology companies need customers. Given these factors, what's particularly interesting is that tech behemoths Apple and Google are approaching the automotive industry in very different ways.

While Apple looks to be integrating its existing devices/services (Siri, iPhone, iPad, iPod) with existing vehicles, Google, as is widely known, is going off in a different direction: developing the technology to power a self-driving vehicle. While the focus on vehicles is somewhat of an odd one for Apple, which has long been about providing well designed, upscale, innovative technology products--not necessarily integrating with other industries--the focus on geeky development is fitting for Google. The self-driving car has already navigated 250,000 test miles (some with a blind driver!), and received at least one patent for its technology.

So what's next for the auto industry? Will it stop focusing on proprietary technology development, like Ford SYNC or GM OnStar, and let the tech companies do what they do best? And what do consumers want? We can't be sure of any answers yet, but technology will only continue to become more important in vehicles. Automakers need to make a big commitment either way, then listen to consumer feedback, to pick the right path when it comes to vehicle technologies.

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