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How Google and Apple are turning your car into a giant smartphone

Dec. 30, 2013 at 1:32 PM ET

Apple's "iOS in the Car" will start appearing in cars in 2014.
Apple
Apple's "iOS in the Car" will start appearing in cars in 2014.

Google and German automaker Audi are teaming up to create an in-car infotainment system that could make checking your phone while driving a thing of the past.

The news will be announced next week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, according to "people familiar with the matter" who talked with the Wall Street Journal. So why is this a big deal?

Imagine a future where you're racing your Audi through the streets and you get lost. There will be no need to pick up your phone. Instead, you'll just give a voice command to your dashboard, which will bring up navigation software. You will also be able to send an email to your friend telling him you will be late and play your favorite song to cheer you up — all without taking your eyes off of the road or your hands off of the steering wheel.

"There is a very big demand for this kind of technology," Gareth Owen, principal analyst at ABI Research, told NBC News. "It's not just the luxury brands. Mass market cars are also offering connected infotainment systems." 

The idea is to give drivers access to a wide-range of apps "similar to those widely available now on Android-powered smartphones," the Wall Street Journal's sources said. A Google spokesperson would not confirm the news, telling NBC News that the company "does not comment on rumor and speculation."

Google could be trying to make waves in the automotive world in response to Apple's "iOS in the Car" program, which it unveiled in June. The partnership with major automakers — including BMW, Honda and Mercedes-Benz — will integrate iOS into dashboards to allow people to ask for directions, make calls, play music, send messages and more. This would be done either through built-in controls or hands- and eyes-free with Siri. 

Starting in 2014, around 200,000 cars should be equipped with "iOS in the Car," according to research by Dr. Egil Juliussen, a principal analyst at research firm IHS. By 2020, that number is expected to grow to 24 or 25 million, with 7.5 million of those cars sold in the United States.

Taking into account Google and other companies, the number of cars equipped with similar infotainment systems could hit 60 to 70 percent of the U.S. market in 2020, Juliussen told NBC News. 

And while it might seem dangerous to have a smartphone basically built into your car, it could end up being safer than what we have now, Juliussen said. 

"The customer wants to use smartphone apps while they're in the car," he said. While it's better to remain completely focused on the road, he said, these systems will limit video and other distracting applications, making them a much better option than using a smartphone.

These systems will only get more advanced in the future, which means they will consume more data. The result? Many cars in the future will be equipped with fast LTE connections, Owen said, allowing for kids to do things like stream cartoons from their phones to backseat displays. 

"It's becoming a key element in the car-purchasing decisions," he said. "People want to be connected and use their mobile phones in their cars in the same way they use them in the home or on the street."

Keith Wagstaff writes about technology for NBC News. He previously covered technology for TIME's Techland and wrote about politics as a staff writer at TheWeek.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kwagstaff and reach him by email at: Keith.Wagstaff@nbcuni.com

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