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Live From CES: Your Next Audi Will Be Obsolete in Two Years


The Open Automotive Alliance has its downside, but it beats the proprietary solutions that automakers are currently offering.

Several days ago, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) announced the Open Automotive Alliance: GM (NYSE:GM), Honda (NYSE:HMC), Audi (GR:NSU), Hyundai (KRX:005380) and Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA) are joining forces with the search giant, in a collective effort to get Android onto car dashboards. Now, before you jump for joy – I mean it, stay seated – consider a few statistics. The average lifespan of a smartphone is about 21 months. Despite that, more than 80% of Android devices are now running versions of the operating system that have been obsolete for a year or more. The average car on the road is 11 years old.

So good luck keeping that Android car current. In all likelihood, the thing will be obsolete the moment you drive it off the lot. Within a year or two, it will have been entirely abandoned by software developers. And in the year 2020, you'll be explaining to your passengers why you still have an app for Pandora (NASDAQ:P), which everyone knows went belly-up in 2015 (just kidding).

Still, the Open Automotive Alliance is far, far better than the proprietary solutions that automakers are currently offering. Like many of the dashboard displays being shown at CES, the Chrysler Via Mobile draws its connectivity from your smartphone via cable or Bluetooth, and channels that connectivity into on-dash apps like iHeartRadio. These apps require developers, which can be difficult to attract. A Chrysler rep told me – and you should take any trade-show talk with a grain of salt – that 2,500 people downloaded the company's software developer kit last year, with the result that Via Mobile now has a whopping 12 apps. BMW (GR:BMW) appears to be somewhat ahead, with a total of 19 apps; but more than half of these were developed by BMW itself, and offer unexciting fare, like digitized car manuals.

Without standardization, carmakers will struggle to attract software developers for new cars, much less old ones. And what happens if the industry does standardize, and these proprietary interfaces are abandoned for something like Android? There's an obvious trap here for car buyers, who are likely to have other things on their minds than the risks associated with a small, possibly ephemeral software platform.

Then there's hardware. Audi used CES to unveil a 10.2-inch Android tablet of its very own, which can be installed for every passenger in the car – sparing your family the inconvenience of lugging around those heavy Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPads and Samsung (KRX:005930) Galaxy Tabs. Worried about your Audi Smart Display becoming obsolete? Fear not. The automaker has thoughtfully made its tablet modular, allowing you buy updated versions from your local dealership, which will be sure to charge you a fair price.

Sarcasm aside, redundancy is everywhere at CES. Most of the cars on display offer voice recognition – like your smartphone. They boast touch screens – like your smartphone. Chevrolet and Audi are demoing cars with integrated LTE – you know, like your smartphone. In almost every way, you would be better off purchasing a "dumb" car and gluing a smartphone cradle onto the dash. The result would be cheaper, more intuitive, and a lot more upgradable.

There are some promising developments in evidence. The integration of smart technology is making cars better at talking and listening. An experimental Mercedes-Benz smartphone app would let you see the charge remaining on your car battery. The Infiniti Q50, on display at Intel's (NASDAQ:INTC) booth, not only lets you access car data, but allows for a degree of control over things like steering wheel resistance, collision detection, and automated safety features.

Both Mercedes and Audi are demonstrating their progress in vehicle automation, and BMW is showing off a car that can parallel park for you. These strike me as technologies that are actually smart, in the sense that they add something new, and are not merely recreating a functionality that we already have in our pockets.

There's nothing smart, however, about reinventing the wheel. If cars are going to become "connected," then they need to be standardized; and the only way you standardize something that's going to last 15 years is by making it as dumb as possible. That means putting smartphones and tablets in the driver's seat.

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