Eight-Cylinder Silicon

As Cars Become Computing Devices, Automakers Race to Adjust

This is a cross-over story. The hard steel of the automotive industry is being shaped by software and silicon, at an increasing pace.

Last week, automakers Audi and Volvo announced that they would begin using Android as the operating system for their upcoming car models. This will be used not just to control infotainment, but also as the operating system for the cars. Android is expanding well beyond smartphones, tablets and televisions and is now controlling transportation.

These upcoming Audi and Volvo vehicles will use Android to control mechanical functions such as a car’s windows, air conditioning and sunroof. The move takes Google well beyond the role of Android Auto, a platform that offers drivers navigation, audio streaming and communications services by integrating a smartphone into a car. A version of Google Assistant optimised for vehicles will be an integral part of the platform, providing drivers with voice control for many functions in a car.

There isn’t just a growing ease among consumers with using computing devices, but a mounting expectation. The automotive industry has developed at a different pace than digital businesses — unsurprising given its diverse histories — and it will take a cultural adjustment to make top-to-bottom change.

Classic car brands are no longer the industry trendsetters. Rather, newcomers such as Tesla and outsiders like Google are taking the headlines and mindshare.

This week, Ford Motor Company replaced its CEO, Mark Fields, over concerns that he wasn’t repositioning the automaker to become a manufacturer for the digital era. Ford can be credited with being the company that disrupted the manufacturing process more than a century ago, but that distinction does it little good in the age of autonomous driving and software upgrades.

Ford’s new CEO, Jim Hackett, comes to the car manufacturer from Steelcase, an office furniture company almost as old as Ford. Mr Hackett is recognised for changing Steelcase’s culture as well as its product portfolio to match the modern workforce. The company’s Web site showcases inspirational office settings where people collaborate, and boasts of Steelcase’s partnership with Microsoft to develop ways of using spaces and technology to “unlock creativity”.

From battery-powered cars and autonomous driving, to ridesharing services that could dilute the value of owning a car, the car industry is facing threats it couldn’t have imagined a decade ago as new technical opportunities grow.