Jarosław Mroczek, or Jarek, is sitting on a couch with his team of designers and software developers doing what designers and software developers do, brainstorming. The smell of sustainably grown coffee wafts through the air while the sound of a yoga class taking place in the in-office gym can be faintly heard in the distance. Ideas like “personalization” and “in-car payment” are written on the whiteboard. Only six of these suggestions will make it to the client as concrete proposals for how to change the future of the automobile. Due to contractual obligations, for the time being, he can’t discuss the details of any of them with me.

The automobile has transformed countless human lives, entire cities, countries, and often has a seat reserved at the heart of international treaties. Jarek’s team honestly believes it can affect the future of so large an industry. Their seismic confidence is not uncommon in the software world. Jarek unabashedly uses phrases like, “The sky is the limit.” What is unusual is that, in this case, disruption may be inevitable.

As the Head of Delivery at DK&A, Jarek and his team are exploring Android Automotive. They are essentially trying to find ways to introduce the open-endedness that Android brings to phones, into cars. If they and other developers like them are successful, it would mean that instead of being limited to the features installed on the factory floor, you could download apps right onto the car — not your phone — creating infinitely more use-cases. Indeed, if they are successful they may well bring about what requires lofty language like “revolution” to describe it.

How can they be so sure? The legacy of the smartphone provides a telling roadmap.

Required Update

The first era of mobile telecommunications was marked by what can retrospectively be called feature phones — devices made by former market leaders like Blackberry or Nokia, which relied on built-in software for its usability options. Then apps came onto the scene and the market share of those brands shriveled.

Since apps up-ended that order, more than 2.5 billion people have gained access to apps (up by 30 percent just last year). This development has created entire secondary industries — resulting in app makers garnering a total income of $88.5 billion in 2016 alone.

Apps on our phones have utterly transformed the way we interact with the world. A recent study by the University of Washington revealed that tech-savvy users have up to 349 encounters with apps in 18 hours, assuming 6 hours of sleep. These interactions begin almost immediately in the morning with 93.8 percent of respondents reading their email or calendars within the first hour of waking up. Then some kind of music, radio or television app would be initiated, after which they might use a ride-hailing app to get to work. During the trip, they might check their social media. App use only slightly slows down when users enter the office but by evening usage goes up again as they unwind with some kind of streaming service or communication application.

We also know that this kind of behavior is not limited to the cell phone as a user interface. A 2018 report shows that 14% of UK households and 10% of German homes already have a smart speaker. This indicates that users are getting more comfortable with the idea of talking to a device as a way of searching for music or even making purchases. But what does this mean for the car?

Car Manufacturers in the Passenger Seat

Car manufacturers are understandably unsure about how to navigate this transition. “It’s a big dilemma for them right now,” Jarek says. “Nobody knows which parts of the car they will own in the future.” Whereas previously they would own all the hardware and software of a car, now they have to face the prospect of farming out some functionality to software providers like Google. On the one hand this represents an existential threat to them — could they one day simply be producers of “shells” that other corporations fill with meaning and value?

This question explains some of the apprehension by the auto industry to embrace Android technology — after all, the mobile phone app revolution is more than ten years old, yet many of these changes have not taken hold in vehicles.

But Jarek sees some manufacturers already venturing out into their new software frontier. He cites the example of Volvo and Amazon, two companies that have recently teamed up to test in-car delivery. This is a system in which users can have their packages delivered right into the trunk of their cars by issuing temporary (restricted) access to Amazon delivery personnel.

Boldly Drive Where No Car Has Driven Before

The possibilities of Android Automotive technology are varied. Personalization could take on an entirely different meaning, allowing someone to get into their car and automatically have their preferred seat settings loaded, their favorite music playlists cued, not to mention their payment systems set up so that they could buy theater tickets with a voice command.

Much like with cell phones, Android Automotive presents an array of opportunities for monetization. The amount of data generated by cars — such as information about locations, wear-and-tear of parts, speeds etc. — can all be sold to advertisers. McKinsey already estimates that the automotive data industry will be worth $450-$750bn by 2030.

Some Kinks to Iron Out

Regulation will almost certainly play a large role in how Android Automotive is eventually used. For one thing, safety is a big concern. For instance, designers would need to bake in safeguards that would make it impossible to search by typing while also driving.

Similarly, security becomes much more worrying. The incident in which hackers took control of driverless GM motors vehicle shows that security will remain a major consideration.

Ok Google, Take Me to the Future

When Jarek is not thinking of the next epoch of the car industry, he likes to do long distance running in the hills close to Wroclaw. He says it allows him to completely shut off from the world. On his way back, however, he already uses Android Automotive’s little brother: Android Auto. This system allows him to test much of the functionality he was brainstorming, albeit through his phone. He can check the weather, make calls, or look something up on wikipedia, all with voice commands. Or just unwind with an audiobook. To him, this is evidence of the inevitability of the progress of this kind of technology. “I’m not talking about something in the distant future,” he says. Given that the likes of Nissan, Renault, and Mitsubishi have already signed up for Android Automotive, it’s getting ever easier to believe him.