Android is the dominant player on the smartphone front, but while it's shown up in the odd head unit and it runs behind the scenes on plenty of production cars, it hasn't had the same sort of an impact on the automotive side of things.
That could change with the next generation of Android, currently code-named Android N. With that release, Google is adding some extensions to make it more dashboard-friendly, meaning your next car might be able to run Android apps without you needing to connect to a phone.
"Many manufacturers are already using Android for their built-in systems. It's free, it's open source," said Patrick Brady, director of Android engineering. "With Android N, we're taking a leap and adding a lot of features that make Android an even better choice for built-in."
What sorts of features? Well, support for HVAC controls for one thing, so that you could adjust in-car temperatures and seat heaters from within Android. The OS will also support multichannel audio, rear-view cameras, full-digital instrument clusters and will also offer a full Bluetooth stack for pairing with other devices.
To show off the concept, Google has partnered with Qualcomm and Maserati to bring a concept car to this year's Google I/O. This is just a concept, with no formal partners signed on to bring this to the road, but it'll show what's possible in connected cars of the very near future.
That concept shows Android apps running in the car, downloaded and installed through the Google Play store. But, Brady notes, that may not be the best way forward.
"We're having a lot of conversations with car makers right now about the right way to do this," he notes. "If you have Spotify on your phone, it's not clear that people want to download and install that on their car...We need to figure out the right way for these things to play together to create a more seamless experience."
This should also create a more personalized experience. One of the primary complaints about systems like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay is that they make every car dashboard look more or less the same. From a manufacturer's perspective, that's a bit of a bummer. "Obviously, when Android is embedded in the car it's completely open source, [manufacturers] can customize whatever they want, to match their brand and look and feel...I don't think anyone wants BMW and Mercedes to have the exact same interface."
However, as with customizations of Android on mobile devices, key elements of the operating system must remain unchanged to ensure compatibility with the Play Store. "We want to make sure that when manufacturers build their platforms, they can make it look like Audi or Chevy or whatever it may be, but still when Spotify runs in that car it should look and feel like Spotify, but it should look and feel like Spotify built specifically for that car."
Google hasn't announced any specific partners who will be bringing Android N to cars in the near future. And, given the lengthy, multiyear design and development cycles required for new cars, it'd be best to not hold your breath. Still, it's always nice to get a little look into the future.