GM, CarPlay, and iPhones

Jason Snell, writing at Six Colors, “General Motors Hates Your iPhone”:

I get the impulse to want to control everything that happens in your car, if you’re an automaker. But given the fact that the smartphone is everyone’s real ride-or-die, the best choice is to integrate tightly with the supercomputer we all keep in our pockets, not to say “let them eat Bluetooth” and be happy degrading the customer experience in the interest of control and incremental revenue. [...]

Will GM’s competitors follow its lead, relieved that the world is finally starting to trend away from bring-your-own-device support in cars? Or will they consider CarPlay a competitive advantage that will allow them to market their own vehicles against GM’s? I sure hope it’s the latter, because we’re never going to give up our smartphones — and if our cars don’t talk to them properly, our in-car experiences will always be second-rate.

One thought I had regarding this decision by GM is that it’s a bit like selling “smart” TV sets that don’t support HDMI input. You get the TV maker’s interface for using apps, games, and streaming services, with no choice to plug in a third-party device like an Apple TV, Chromecast stick, or Roku. I don’t know of any TV sets like that, but HomePods are sort of like that as speakers. HomePods have no traditional line-in for audio — whatever sound comes out of your HomePods, it comes through Apple’s own software stack. GM is more like a traditional speaker company. It’d be really weird if, say, Bose sold a set of smart speakers that didn’t support line-in, because unlike Apple, Bose isn’t a leading software platform company.

Tesla is seemingly thriving while going its own way software-wise. Rivian is following Tesla’s lead, and can’t manufacture their vehicles fast enough to keep up with demand. But both of those companies have roots in Silicon Valley, not Detroit. Both Tesla and Rivian seem more like Apple than they do General Motors.

Marques Brownlee had Rivian CEO R.J. Scaringe as his guest on his Waveform podcast this week (recorded in the cabin of a Rivian R1S), and asked him about Rivian’s decision not to support CarPlay or Android Auto. Scaringe’s answer (11m:49s) was good:

“I mean a lot of the things we do, like whether it’s music or mapping, we have to make sure we integrate in with the best-in-class platforms. But by controlling the system it just allows us to be the ... arbiter, the head chef, in terms of the experience that you get, versus handing over control of what we think is one of the most important parts of the experience.”

Rivian sees itself as much as a software company as a hardware one. That’s an ambitious gamble, to be sure, but Scaringe’s comments clearly show that Rivian understands the stakes, and are doing this to put the overall driving/ownership experience first.1

The system that runs the onboard computer is a major factor in car-buying decisions today, and it’s only increasing in importance with each passing year. If GM, in collaboration with Google, creates their own custom platform that makes people as happy as Tesla’s and Rivian’s do, well, OK. But I have no faith in GM or Google to pull that off. I personally know several Tesla owners whose number one complaint is that Teslas don’t support CarPlay, and I know other people who have chosen cars other than Teslas solely for that reason. A lot of Tesla owners and would-be owners wish Tesla supported CarPlay — and I would wager heavily that GM never delivers a system that’s as good as Tesla’s, let alone CarPlay.

And the fact that GM is doing this in collaboration with Google already puts them in different territory than Tesla or Rivian, who’ve created their own entire software stacks. If GM is only going to support its own automotive software system, they ought to be willing and able to do the entire thing themselves, with confidence that they’ll provide a best-in-class experience for owners. Otherwise this seems like a data grab by Google — collecting location, search, and music/podcast listening data from every driver of every vehicle GM eventually sells with this system — and a SaaS revenue grab by GM. From the Reuters report that broke this news:

Buyers of GM EVs with the new systems will get access to Google Maps and Google Assistant, a voice command system, at no extra cost for eight years, GM said. GM said the future infotainment systems will offer applications such as Spotify’s music service, Audible and other services that many drivers now access via smartphones.

“We do believe there are subscription revenue opportunities for us,” Kummer said. GM Chief Executive Mary Barra is aiming for $20 billion to $25 billion in annual revenue from subscriptions by 2030.

This sounds like a decision motivated entirely by a desire to generate a significant new services revenue stream, and not at all motivated by a desire to create the best possible driving/passenger experience.

One influential group that knows the importance of CarPlay integration are car dealers. Say what you want about car salespeople, they know exactly what motivates buying decisions. I suspect GM corporate is getting an earful from GM dealers regarding this decision. I don’t know if GM is planning to share that future subscription revenue with dealers, but they won’t get a penny from every sale lost to a rival whose cars do support CarPlay.2

20 years ago Apple presented the Mac as the ideal “digital hub” — the connection between all of one’s disparate devices, from MP3 players to cameras. A decade later, Apple went all-in on iCloud, and cloud computing in general, as the new hub. But in many ways our phones are our new digital hubs. They serve a very different role from what Macs and PCs did 20 years ago. Rather than serve as a hub for hardware peripherals, our phones serve as our primary hub for software services and apps. CarPlay exemplifies that role.

  1. I wonder how much of a factor it is that Apple has spent the last decade not-so-secretly working on creating its own line of cars? There’s no way GM would ever integrate a software system from, say, Ford or Honda. But so why integrate CarPlay, which comes from a company that seemingly wants to compete with existing automakers? Apple’s own car ambitions make CarPlay integration, to some extent, seem like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. ↩︎︎

  2. I wonder too about car rental fleets. I’d be furious today if I rented a car that didn’t support CarPlay. I might be willing to learn a new system in a new car I bought, but when I rent a car, I just want to connect my iPhone and get the navigation, music, and podcast experience I already know. ↩︎