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A Ford Mustang on display at the Beijing Auto Show in Beijing on Sept. 26, 2020.NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

Ford Motor Co. and Google have announced a six-year partnership that will put Android’s automotive operating system in millions of Ford and Lincoln vehicles beginning in 2023.

Drivers can expect to have Google’s voice assistant and Google Maps built in to vehicles, as well as access to in-car apps from the Google Play store and over-the-air updates for vehicle software.

As part of the deal, Google will be the “preferred cloud provider” for Ford, which will be able to leverage the tech giant’s expertise in data, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The two companies are also establishing a joint group, called Team Upshift, to collaborate on personalized consumer experiences and data-driven business opportunities.

The financial details of the partnership were not disclosed.

This partnership is the latest in long series of shifting alliances between automotive and tech companies in the race to create connected and automated vehicles, and take advantage of the new business opportunities such technologies open up.

For example, David McClelland, Ford’s vice president of strategy and partnerships, said the company could use Google’s machine learning to give Ford customers new, tailored ownership offers based on their connected vehicle data.

In other words, Ford could use your driving habits and the way you interact with your car to sell you new products more effectively.

“Because you understand the consumer and the driver better, you can offer them great experiences as they shop or explore for a car, as they work with the dealer on an ongoing basis after they bought the car,” said Thomas Kurian, chief executive officer of Google Cloud.

Asked whether driver data would be shared with third parties and advertisers, Kurian said, “no.”

In three to five years, almost all new cars will have built-in connectivity to online cloud-based platforms, said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Detroit-based auto industry research firm Guidehouse Insights.

“While people are driving your vehicles, [car companies] would like to generate more revenue and connectivity is one of the ways to do that, both directly through subscriptions for the connectivity, but also for additional services that the customers might be willing to pay for that utilize that connectivity,” Abuelsamid said. Those services could be anything from in-car music streaming subscriptions, to real-time traffic information, to remote vehicle diagnostics.

Auto makers are only just beginning to tap into this potential revenue stream, but like any new online service, connected cars open up a Pandora’s box of issues about privacy and cybersecurity.

Outsourced operating systems

Auto makers are very good at welding metal to create cars and trucks – they’ve been doing it for more than 100 years – but software presents a new and entirely different challenge.

It took 25 million lines of code to run Audi’s in-car infotainment system in 2018. More recently, Volkswagen had to delay the launch of some versions of its much-hyped because of software problems.

It’s little wonder that auto makers are looking to partner with tech giants. “[Car companies] all use operating systems developed by some other party, rather than developing their own,” Abuelsamid said. “The most commonly used ones now are [Blackberry’s] QNX and Linux, which is widely used, and Android.”

Ford’s new deal with Google is a rejection of Microsoft, a long-time Ford partner that collaborated on the original Sync infotainment system, as well as of Blackberry, whose QNX operating system powers the Sync software in current Ford and Lincoln vehicles.

“We still see Sync as a strong differentiator,” Ford’s David McClelland said. “Customers, yes, will continue to use [Sync] until we transition to the Google automotive services solution in calendar year 2023.”

Other automakers, including Volvo and General Motors, are also using Google’s Android operating system in their vehicles. The all-electric Polestar 2, which is on the road now, was the first car to use Android’s well-received automotive operative system. But, Ford’s implementation will be different, McClelland said.

“We’ll be using the same Android platform, and we will be working with Google, but the experiences that we produce will be uniquely Ford and Lincoln,” he explained.

Drivers will still be able to use Apple CarPlay or Amazon’s Alexa voice-assistant in their vehicles if they so choose, McClelland confirmed. The Google partnership also seems to leave the door open for Ford to use other cloud-based services if it decides to.

The risk auto makers run in using someone else’s operating system is not only that in-car screens will look and feel similar to competitors – thereby losing another point of differentiation in an increasingly homogenous market – but that the handful of big tech companies who create the software will be better positioned to reap the benefits and monetize this flood of new data.

The nightmare for automakers would be becoming low-margin contract manufacturers of hardware, like Foxconn is to Apple. But, McClelland said Ford will not be anything like Foxconn, echoing a similar statement made in 2015 by Dieter Zetsche, who was then head of Daimler. Indeed, since then, more and more automakers have partnered with tech companies, as Ford has done now with Google.

For drivers, most of whom still have no idea that modern cars can collect massive amounts of data on them and their habits, connected cars pose a different kind of risk.

“Probably the biggest downside is a loss of privacy in the vehicle,” Sam Abuelsamid said. “There is a lot of data being generated in your vehicle, about what you’re doing and where are you going.” Trying to untangle who owns that data, who should get access to it for what purpose, and how much control drivers have over their car’s data is a messy business that we in North America have not yet fully figured out.

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