Guest author Michael O’Shea is the president and CEO of Abalta Technologies. 

Apple VP Eddy Cue unveiled "iOS in the Car" at the company's developer conference last June, announcing that nine-plus automakers would support its integration of a driver's iPhone into a car's information systems. Still, he took less than 90 seconds to describe how it would supposedly let drivers make phone calls, get directions and play music without distraction.

Apple has remained reticent on the subject ever since. CEO Tim Cook did spend a few moments answering a question about iOS in the Car during Apple's July earnings call, although this is all he had to say:

Having something in the automobile is very, very important, it's something that people want and I think that Apple can do this in a unique way better than anyone else. So it's a key focus for us.

As a result, it's fair to say that we’ve still got a lot to learn about the implications for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and their suppliers in the auto industry, and ultimately, how it will affect consumers’ driving experience.

We do know many of the major car manufacturers (Honda, Mercedes, Nissan and more) have committed to integrating iOS into their 2014 models. However, even though these manufacturers have signed on, there are some real challenges ahead for integrating Apple’s new service into their vehicles.

Initial Reactions To iOS In The Car

Many consumers were thrilled about the concept of iOS in the Car. The prospect of a safe, connected experience while driving is exciting—no one knows that more than companies and experts in the auto industry. But industry experts were decidedly more skeptical.

Roger Lancot, an associate director with Strategy Analytics, was clear in an interview with MSN Autos:

It’s hard to comprehend car makers embracing this approach. It speaks to the degree of desperation within the OEM community to find a simple turnkey connectivity solution that solves at least part of the smartphone connectivity challenge.

That impression also reflects the feelings of a major manufacturer, BMW, who was noticeably missing from Apple’s partner list at the unveiling of iOS in the Car. When questioned about a potential partnership with Apple, a company executive said “the upshot is that as we have such an advanced multimedia offer that has been in vehicles in various guises for more than a decade, it would not be that straight forward to start changing all of the architecture of a car as has been implied [by Apple],” and that the process for integrating iOS into a car's dashboard is “not as simple as it sounds.”

BMW would later clarify that statement, indicating that is it still in the process of deciding about what to do with iOS. But its initial sense of excitement about the program was not exactly overwhelming.

What Will iOS In The Car Allow Drivers To Do?

Although iOS in the Car is new, Apple has actually been working on delivering a mobile driving experience for some time.

The company launched its iPod Out service in 2010 with iOS 4.0, and quickly gained support from 35 auto manufacturers. While iOS in the Car does add more functionality than iPod Out, including map and message integration, for now it remains limited to providing support for a select set of Apple-specific services. So, just like iPod Out, the one million-plus third-party apps available in the Apple Store cannot be accessed via iOS in the Car to become a part of users’ car experience. This means users are restricted to Apple’s own apps, including the poorly-received Apple Maps.

Perhaps that's why all auto manufacturers and their suppliers moved forward with the development of largely proprietary infotainment systems (despite the earlier manufacturer support for iPod Out). Many of these systems integrate with iPod Out as an additional element—but iPod Out is not central to any of them, nor are they limited to it.

Core Services Versus All Apps Allowed

Apple has currently restricted the apps on iOS in the Car to its core Apple-specific services (Apple Maps, iMessage, Siri, etc.). If Apple does not open iOS in the Car up to third-party apps, then automotive manufacturers will likely continue to independently pursue separate approaches to app delivery to the car, likely relegating the Apple solution to an available feature, rather than a core service.

Apple will also have more pressure to reverse the negative perception of its Maps service, and car companies will have to wrestle with the implications of brought-in and free navigation—navigation currently being a lucrative business for them.

In this scenario, manufacturers will also need to determine an approach for other operating systems like Android and Windows. Will they give up their proprietary approaches and enable an Apple mode and a separate Android mode (maybe Windows Phone and BB10 as well), ceding the car’s center console to the phone manufacturers?

Auto makers have protected the prime “center stack” real estate very carefully for their entire history. Keep in mind, until relatively recently the only “interface” available for third-party devices was the 12V cigarette lighter. Car makers have only slowly opened USB and Bluetooth interfaces over the past five years or so. It is quite a leap of imagination to assume they would give up the center stack screen and potentially give outside vendors access to valuable user and vehicle data in the process.

If Apple does opens iOS in the Car to third-party developers, who would be responsible for ensuring the third-party apps are suitable for use by drivers in a moving vehicle? And those apps would adhere to international Human Machine Interface guidelines for driver distraction avoidance (which means dealing with guidelines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, et al)?

Apple undertakes app certification for the current iTunes App Store, but would they also undertake this responsibility for the relatively small car market? Would they accept the ensuing liabilities? It’s not clear who would take on these responsibilities if not Apple.

Apple’s Future Role In The Auto Industry

Although Tim Cook stated vehicle integration is important to the company, the evolution from iPod Out to iOS in the Car has been very slow.

It will be interesting to see if Apple maintains its approach to infotainment and vehicle system integration, which is currently supplemental, rather than integral. Even if Apple maintains this approach, manufacturers will continue to partner with Apple because they don’t want to risk alienating iOS users.

But iOS in the Car will likely be set alongside car makers' propriety solutions, and not taking over the center console.