In part, that's because of concerns about turf: If we let Silicon Valley colonize our cars, the automakers seem to be asking, will we end up becoming just "device makers" -- while Apple or Google delivers the real value to customers?
The big automakers have become extremely wary of the possibility of "disruption" from the tech giants. Google's autonomous-car experiments and the Apple Car rumors haven't exactly assuaged those concerns. It's not a surprise that they'd hesitate before giving Apple and Google a chunk of prime real estate on their dashboards.
But now comes word that General Motors (NYSE:GM) is embracing both Google's and Apple's systems wholeheartedly. Is GM selling out to Silicon Valley?
Automakers haven't exactly rushed to embrace Google and Apple
A few high-end automakers have dabbled with the Apple and Google systems. Fiat Chrysler's (NYSE:FCAU) Ferrari subsidiary was the first automaker to adopt Apple CarPlay (not a surprise, given that Apple's Internet software and services chief, Eddy Cue, sits on Ferrari's board of directors.)
But the mass-market brands have been reluctant to make the move. That's why GM CEO Mary Barra made headlines when she announced late last month that both CarPlay and Android Auto would be offered in 14 different mass-market 2016 Chevrolet models. This past week, GM expanded the list of cars that would have both systems to include most 2016 Cadillacs. (The upgraded Cadillac systems will receive Android Auto sometime after the beginning of the model year.)
GM joins Hyundai (OTC:HYMTF), which began rolling out Android Auto a couple of days before Barra's announcement, and ... that's about it. In fact, Toyota (NYSE:TM) just announced a deal with Ford (NYSE:F) to share a rival technology called SmartDeviceLink that allows your car to control smartphone apps -- without involving Google or Apple.
Ford CEO Mark Fields recently told tech blog Re/code, "We don't want to end up as the handset business," where lots of phones get sold at razor-thin profit margins while the real value is in software controlled by other companies.
It might be a stretch to apply that thinking to autos. But even if it's not, it's clear that Barra has a different view of the risks and benefits.
Why General Motors was willing to invite Silicon Valley into its cars
With Cadillac, which is competing with the German luxury giants on turf that is increasingly defined by advanced technology, a move to include the Apple and Google systems makes some obvious sense. It's a high-tech feature that Cadillac will have in place before rivals, and it might help the brand pick up a few sales.
But why is GM leading with the mass-market Chevrolet brand -- and specifically, with the compact Cruze, which will apparently be the first model to get the systems?
Barra said in a statement that she sees this as a move to "democratize technology" with the mass-market Chevy brand. But I think it's about a little more than that.
Under Barra, GM has adopted a list of principles that it often features in presentations. Among them are statements that GM aims to "earn customers for life" by translating "breakthrough technologies into vehicles and experiences that people love."
These are themes that Barra and her senior team regularly revisit. It's part of a big shift in culture that Barra is trying to drive at GM, one that puts customers first -- and one that makes delighting those customers a top priority.
Or put another way, it looks like Barra has decided that the benefits of the Apple and Google systems to GM's customers outweigh the risks to GM's business.
Of course, it's also possible that GM has decided that an industrywide move to CarPlay and Android Auto is probably inevitable, and GM might as well lead it.
But either way, I think GM's customers will be pleased -- and that the kind of win that Barra and GM need now.