Big Tech Takes Over
Each of the Big Four — Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon — has made its own investments in automotive, mobility, and logistics companies. Taken together, those investments tell a story: these tech giants see a gold rush underway. They don’t want to miss out. And they have so much money to throw around that, if we let them, they can take a dominant position in every part of the sector.
Here are some of the new technologies, products, and services on which each Big Tech company has decided to stake its future. Remember, these are just a few of the highlights; together, these companies have hundreds of billions of dollars committed, in every part of the automotive sector.
Google’s tentacles are in every part of the software world. There’s never been a company like it at this scale. Its leadership is committed to letting its staff envision new ways of using its access to data and processing power to invent new services for consumers and businesses. And it has enough money to follow that innovation wherever it leads.
Google entered the automotive sector early, with the launch of its foundational Google Maps 17 years ago. It’s hard now to remember a world before Google Maps, which is the world’s most widely used (by far) mobility and navigation aid, serving a billion people a month and underpinning millions of apps and web services. Over the years, Google has broadened the functionality of Google Maps and deepened its market penetration through both acquisition (buying up competitors like Waze) and a dizzying breadth of functionality enhancements developed in-house.
Now, Google Maps is a gigantic interwoven set of consumer applications and data services, powering mobility, data visualization, and marketing for consumers, corporations, governments, and public agencies around the world. Arguably it’s the single most influential business technology platform in history. It’s a fundamental promotional platform for global retail businesses, which survive or fail based on their Google Maps reviews. And it directly underpins the operations of hundreds of thousands of companies whose work depends on knowing where in the world things are and how to get there, including rideshare, delivery, logistics, and shipping companies of every size.
On the consumer side, Google Maps is now the gatekeeper to dozens of other services and businesses, and Google makes money off every transaction. The company uses the immense market power that Google Maps gives it to its advantage, to such a degree that it is being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for monopolistic practices.
Google Maps, along with all the services it provides, isn’t just built into your phone and computer; it’s now built into practically every car and truck, via Android Auto, the information and entertainment platform Google launched in 2014 that now comes pre-installed on vehicles in 46 countries around the world. Like Apple’s CarPlay (see below), Android Auto keeps you locked into the Google ecosystem whenever you’re in your car, enabling Google to collect more data on you and feed you targeted content and advertising. It’s convenient — but like all convenience that comes with Big Tech services, it’s not really free, and it opens the door to significant privacy dangers. In 2020, Google’s enormous stockpile of location data was used to identify political protestors, and police regularly obtain “geofence warrants” that can unmask anyone who’s traveled through a given area. Tools like these could be used, for instance, to exploit Google data to identify people who have visited abortion clinics or attended political meetings. Because America lacks meaningful privacy laws, letting Google accumulate even more granular data about where we drive simply isn’t safe.
As one of the most aggressive investors in autonomous driving technology, Google isn’t just investing in R&D; it’s already bringing self-driving vehicles to market. Waymo started as an internal Google research project; now it’s a $30 billion independent venture (still owned by Google) that has put self-driving taxis on the road in Phoenix and will soon bring them to San Francisco. But the big money isn’t in consumer services like robot taxis: it’s in freight and high-volume passenger transportation. Waymo’s underlying technology is already being licensed to companies like Daimler and Uber for self-driving trucks, and the Chinese automaker Geely for self-driving buses. Products like these are closer than you think — and every time one of them hits the road, Google’s profits get a little bigger.
If you’ve driven a car recently, it probably supports Apple’s CarPlay, the first and most widely deployed smartphone-enabled information and entertainment platform, which has now been on the market for 12 years and is available in 98% of new cars. CarPlay comes standard on every automaker’s vehicles (except Tesla), and it’s ready to go as soon as you sit down in the driver’s seat: just connect via wireless, Bluetooth, or a USB cable, and many of the features of your iPhone are available on your car dashboard, no configuration required.
Apple makes CarPlay easy to use on purpose, as part of their plan to make money for their shareholders by extracting information from your every move. When you use it, CarPlay gives Apple access to a trove of data on how and where you drive, information about who you call and text when you’re in the car, and even potentially recordings of your personal conversations. The next generation of CarPlay will be even more tightly integrated with your car’s core systems, and Apple’s contracts with automakers require information about your driving to be shared with your iPhone — and with Apple itself.
CarPlay also pulls customers away from Google Maps toward Apple Maps, its own mapping and directions application, which has less market penetration. (Yes, that’s competition of a sort; but a 50-pound gorilla battling it out with an 800-pound gorilla in an otherwise empty room isn’t enough to matter.)
Apple has been working on its own self-driving car since 2014, as part of its 1,000-employee Project Titan; its prototype vehicles, which use machine learning to improve their navigation over time, have logged over 13,000 test miles in California. The company held talks with Hyundai and Nissan about partnering for vehicle assembly, suggesting a long-term ambition to develop a vehicle for a large consumer market. In 2019, it bought autonomous vehicle company Drive.ai, and primary Apple supplier Foxconn is also working on supportive technology for autonomous driving.
Amazon makes 8 billion deliveries a year, so its largest automotive opportunity is to automate the movement of packages — both in freight shipping, and over the last mile from the distribution center to your home. It has made investments both in self-driving research and development, and in electric car and battery technology, understanding that these two subsectors will evolve in sync.
The company isn’t limiting its automotive aspirations to shipping and delivery; it has always taken every opportunity it can to generate side revenue streams from its core business. (For example, Amazon initially built Amazon Web Services to run its own internal data and hosting services. Now, AWS is the market leader.) In 2020, Amazon bought the autonomous taxi company Zoox. Potentially, Amazon could include Zoox taxi rides as a benefit of its Amazon Prime membership program.
But most of its investments and partnerships are in the areas that will support package shipping and delivery, including partnerships with Rivian, maker of autonomous vans; Stellantis, which is developing smart cockpit software; and Velodyne Lidar, manufacturer of the sensors that enable autonomous vehicles to understand their surroundings so they know where to go. And autonomous long-distance trucking is already being tested: Amazon’s $75 million ownership stake in Aurora, and its partnership with Daimler, suggest that how freight moves over long distances will change sooner than we might expect.
So far, Facebook has mostly been watching from the sidelines; its only activity in the vehicles space has been its participation in the Mobility Hub, a German partnership between Daimler and BMW to test and commercialize consumer autonomous and electric vehicles and services in a coordinated way. But Facebook has historically provided powerful customer experience services to auto dealers, understanding the power it has to reach and activate consumers, and there is every reason to expect more auto investments in the future.