When car companies do business with Apple or Google, they like to say they are dealing with a "partner" -- not a supplier.
In the case of Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto -- two new electronic interfaces designed to let drivers use their smartphone apps on a vehicle's built-in screen -- it's becoming clear that they won't always be silent partners.
At the moment, Apple, Google and automakers have a shared agenda: to neatly stitch together vehicles and smartphones so drivers can safely stay connected behind the wheel. But their competing philosophies and interests are starting to come into play, raising the prospect of tensions over safety, privacy or profits.
To understand how that might happen, consider WhatsApp, a smartphone app that allows people to swap text messages free over the Internet. Though its U.S. user base is relatively small, WhatsApp is hugely popular in Europe and has 600 million-plus users globally, making it the world's most popular messaging service.
WhatsApp would seem to be a perfect fit for CarPlay and Android Auto. After all, one of the main reasons automakers have embraced Android Auto and CarPlay is to tap Apple and Google's voice-recognition technology, which could help end the temptation to tap away at a smartphone while driving.
But it's not that simple.
Google demonstrated at the Los Angeles Auto Show that Android Auto will read its driver an incoming WhatsApp message and allow the motorist to dictate a reply. "Helping drivers to more safely send and receive messages using their voice in the app of their choice is one of the key design goals of our product," Andy Brenner, product manager for Android Auto, wrote in an email through a spokesman.
But CarPlay does not support WhatsApp. Apple, known for the control it exerts over its products, confirmed that third-party messaging apps are unavailable. The only options are to use the phone's texting function and Apple's proprietary messaging service, iMessage, which competes with WhatsApp.
"This will be a question to Apple, for sure," Mathias Halliger, chief architect of Audi AG's MMI infotainment system, said when asked about the absence of third-party messaging apps. "We have a lot of Apple users."
Who owns the product?
The absence of WhatsApp may seem like a small matter.
Mr. Halliger, who works closely with Apple from Volkswagen Group's r&d center in Silicon Valley, predicted that Apple will eventually add third-party messaging to CarPlay -- presumably, after automakers or customers clamor for the service. Apple didn't reply to a request for comment for this article.
But this situation shows how the balance of power in the auto industry is shifting.
Automakers have historically enjoyed near total control over the content in their vehicles, with suppliers working at the whim of their customers. But in this case, Apple has made the decision; the automakers must live with it.
In the future, the disagreement could be weightier. It is not difficult to imagine that automakers may wish to block an app that harvests data, only to discover that Apple or Google is the one calling the shots.
Automakers contacted by Automotive News said they have helped develop guidelines for apps through groups such as the Google-led Open Automotive Alliance. But they do not have a say in individual approvals.
"Apple and Google own the products themselves and are really the only ones who can speak to the final decision-making," a GM spokesman wrote in an email. He said that members of the alliance have "committed to support any and all apps within Android Auto and Apple CarPlay that meet the guidelines in place."
More than two dozen automakers have committed to CarPlay and Android Auto, with the rollout expected to begin in earnest in 2015. Audi, Honda, Hyundai and Volvo are expected to be among the first to use them in mass-market models in the U.S.
Alpine and Pioneer sell aftermarket head units equipped with CarPlay.
A 'preprogrammed' conflict
It is hard to predict how the new power relationship will play out. But it is clear that Apple, Google and automakers have differing profit motives and visions for how apps should operate in vehicles.
Automakers are clearly more fearful than Apple and Google of lawsuits over privacy breaches and distracted driving, said Jorg Brakensiek, who leads a technical working group at the Car Connectivity Consortium, which has developed a rival platform called MirrorLink. This makes sense, he said, because car companies are historically the ones that get slapped with a lawsuit when something goes wrong with a vehicle.