DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And we can't get enough of the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. We're staying right there with a question: two-door or four-door? Gas or hybrid? Soon it won't be long before the car salesperson is asking Apple or Google?
Automakers unveiled an alliance yesterday that's aimed at bringing Google's Android operating system into millions of cars in the next few years. Here's NPR's Steve Henn.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: If you are like me you've pretty much given up on paper maps and now rely almost entirely on a smartphone for directions.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
HENN: Directions to the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
SIRI: Which the Cosmopolitan? Tap the one you want.
HENN: Using Siri this way has its downsides. Last night, Apple's personal digital assistant sent me to the wrong side of town.
And even in the best of circumstances using a smartphone in a car means looking down into your lap on the highway or struggling to get your phone to play nice with what automobile companies now call infotainment systems.
And even these fancy built-in navigation systems can present their own special challenges.
Last night, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Audi and Nvidia, a chipmaker wanted to show off what their technology could do inside cars, so they sent me for a test drive with a guy named Leon Thompson.
LEON THOMPSON: Let go to Circus Circus - it's like fear and loathing in Las Vegas.
HENN: OK. Let's...
THOMPSON: Have you ever read that book?
HENN: Turns out Thompson didn't know how to use the system and I couldn't figure it out.
THOMPSON: I believe all the controls are right here. So we go to menu...
HENN: Navigation. All right, I'm going to click that. All right. Now we want to tell it where to go. Circus Circus. How do we enter it? Um. Hmm.
We never made it to Circus Circus, and it was obvious that even the slickest, fanciest in-car infotainment systems on the market today still have their issues.
And tech companies see an opportunity in all of this. If they can make this stuff simple and make it work there is money here.
So last summer, Apple said it was working with half a dozen automakers to integrate Siri - its voice activated personal assistant into automobiles. And today, Google announced it's working with GM, Audi, Honda and Hyundai to form what they're calling the Open Automobile Alliance.
These companies hope to create common standards that will allow Google's Android software to work seamlessly and safely within their cars. And computer chip makers like Nvidia are hoping for a boom in automotive business.
Danny Shapiro runs Nvidia's automotive chip division.
DANNY SHAPIRO: We are enabling the automakers to put more powerful systems in their car, but much like your phone can get software updates over the air, we see cars following that same model.
HENN: The bet here is that an open platform for in-car computing will help give birth to a new generation of software that actually works in cars, software that can help you find your way to your hotel without endangering the lives of those around you on the road.
Charles Golvin is a long time industry analyst. Golvin says for any mobile operating system to take off in the automobile it has to abide by this rule first...
CHARLES GOLVIN: Whatever you're designing has this prime directive of, you know, do no distraction whatsoever.
HENN: He's even kind of hopeful that all this digital technology invading the automobile could make driving safer. Last year, Audi showed off its own prototype of a self-driving car.
MATHIAS HALLIGER: We think that 90 percent of the innovations in the car will come from electronics.
HENN: Mathias Halliger works for Audi. His job is to design Audi's MMI - or Man Machine Interface. And think about what he just said. He believes that 90 percent of all new innovation in automobiles will come from electronics.
So perhaps it's no surprise that this German automotive engineer is now based in Silicon Valley.
Steve Henn NPR New at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.