By Jason Snell
April 6, 2023 3:48 PM PT
General Motors hates your iPhone
As first reported by Reuters, General Motors has decided that the company’s future electric cars will drop support for CarPlay and Android Auto, preferring the company’s own infotainment system based on the lower-level Android Automotive operating system. Essentially, all of GM’s EVs will run Android and offer access to certain Android apps, but any hope of connecting your phone to the cars via any means beyond Bluetooth will be gone.
Ultimately, however, this is about control. Whether drivers want it or not — and I suspect a great many do not — this next generation of cars will be about consumer data and subscription features as much as they’ll be about instant electric torque and eliminating carbon emissions. The auto industry is banking on data and subscriptions being massively lucrative revenue streams. GM alone hopes to grow its subscription revenue more than tenfold to $25 billion per year by 2030. Why would any automaker want to cut Apple in on that or be forced to play ball with its software? And neither Apple nor Google charges car companies to use these features; owners don’t have to subscribe to them monthly, either.
“From a business perspective, having more control over what happens within your vehicles is extremely valuable for both vehicle development as well as the opportunities presented by capturing and repackaging data for analysis and marketing,” Ivan Drury, Edmunds’ director of insights, told The Verge.
I have a lot of strong feelings about this, because it’s a clear case of a corporation prioritizing its own business and technical interests over the needs of its users. While GM’s statements on the matter constantly emphasize that this is an improvement or evolution of the in-car experience, it’s all spin and lies.
The truth is, instead of allowing your smartphone—the single most important information appliance we all have—to be a key part of the driving experience, GM has decided that it will place itself at the center of that experience. This fundamentally means that it will be a second-class experience, because almost nobody will consider their car computer as their primary device.
Relying on a secondary device has huge drawbacks. First, consider compatibility: If users rely on apps and services that aren’t available on GM’s platform, they will be forced to change, fall back to Bluetooth, or go without. The arrogance in believing that GM should force people to bend their digital lives in order to fit into their cars is breathtaking. Are users going to be forced to change their podcast app of choice, or streaming music service of choice, or audiobook player of choice, all because General Motors wants to enhance its revenue?
But it’s worse than that. Even if you happen to use a supported service or app, you have to rely on syncing between devices. Now you’ve got to hope that whatever connectivity the car offers will be able to keep your music playlists and the current playing location of your podcast or audiobooks synced and up to date. Cloud syncing is tricky—do I really trust General Motors to keep all my stuff in line?
And of course, there’s the Android app experience itself. It has never been the platform’s strength. If the app you want to use is available on the Play Store, and has been flagged for Automotive use, and presumably has been approved by some invisible GM gatekeeper… will it be any good? Or will it be a mediocre-at-best-but-at-least-it-works experience?
GM wants your data. It wants to control your in-car experience. Yes, I have sympathy for a company that is trying to integrate a lot of advanced in-car navigation and safety features with its own hardware stack—in fact, I think it’s not at all unreasonable for GM to declare that if you want to use those features, you must use GM’s built-in navigation apps. But, of course, that’s not what they are actually doing. They’re trying to hide their power grab behind their need to tie auto-drive features to their own navigation system.
This move is infuriating enough simply by dint of it being a giant corporation deciding that its customers were too satisfied with making their own choices. But let’s be honest, the software track record of auto companies is poor.
Even when they do a good job—let’s give them the benefit of the doubt—their priorities are never aligned with the users. If you buy a new iPhone, or upgrade to the new version of iOS, you get new features and better hardware. The computer on a GM car will never get a hardware upgrade, and I would wager that the software will remain fairly static—with key new features and updates only arriving on newer model cars. Even if GM begins this process in a competitive position versus CarPlay and Android Auto, that advantage will begin to depreciate the second you drive the car off the lot.
Tangentially, two EV companies have already gone down this path: Tesla and Rivian. And yes, both of them are just as arrogant as GM in preferring their own stock software to the smartphones in everyone’s pockets. At least GM will have access to Android apps—Tesla finally added support for Apple Music earlier this year! (It took just eight years!) A guy in Poland has spent countless hours trying to hack CarPlay into the Tesla web browser.
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.
The real question is, what happens next? Of course, the smart move would be for GM to backtrack and offer basic CarPlay support on future models, but I don’t think anyone is actually expecting that. What is worth watching is what other automakers do next. According to some numbers revealed by Apple last year, 79 percent of new car buyers in the U.S. say that CarPlay is a must-have feature. (Obviously, GM doesn’t believe those stated preferences are particularly strong.)
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.
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