If you’ve long felt like the one thing missing from your Audi was in-car TikTok, fret no more. Volkswagen is the latest to join the in-car app party, and it’s doing it in a big way. And it’s a preview of the conglomerate’s big plans for a unified in-car software platform that will govern how its cars operate for years to come.
The world’s second-largest vehicle manufacturer announced that it will soon roll out an app store designed to serve its wide portfolio of car brands. Inside, drivers will find familiar third-party apps optimized for car-friendly usage.
The initial rollout includes big names like TikTok, Spotify, Yelp, and more, all optimized for in-car use and designed to run from an infotainment system screen. The app store will launch with certain new Audi models this year and will be rolled out to additional cars and brands, like Porsche, Lamborghini, and Bentley, later on.
In doing so, VW joins in the increasing proliferation of a smartphone-like experience in the car. Last month, Mercedes-Benz also announced that its new cars, starting with the 2024 E-Class, will include built-in apps for TikTok, Zoom, the Vivaldi web browser, and more.
The VW app store launch is even more extensive. The apps available at launch span a wide range of categories, including music and podcasting, video conferencing, weather, parking, EV charging, gaming, news, smart home integration, and more.
The app store will launch with much of Audi’s 2023 lineup in the US, Canada, Mexico, and Europe starting this summer, including cars like the A4 / A5, Q5, A6 / A7, A8, Q8 E-tron, and E-tron GT. Further Audi models will follow later this year with more brands and cars added after that. (A Volkswagen brand spokesperson in the US declined to comment on when the app store might debut on those vehicles in this market.)
While the app store won’t be available via over-the-air updates on existing models, the automaker says it previews a completely new infotainment stack called One.Infotainment for all its brands coming soon. That, and the operating system that underpins it, will be based on Android Automotive, the automaker has said. The app store was developed with Harman, an automotive supplier that’s now a Samsung subsidiary.
“It’s a new level of digital experiences we want to show,” said Dirk Hilgenberg, the CEO of Cariad, VW in-house software division, on a call with reporters. With regard to third-party app companies, “We can combine and leverage with each other creating an immersive experience, especially as far as gaming, relaxing is concerned,” he said.
Hilgenberg also said one goal was to add “in-office functionalities” designed from the outset to work in a vehicle setting. Furthermore, VW is in talks to add native Google Maps integration to the system.
Apps formatted specifically for automotive use have become increasingly popular in recent years as more and more drivers (and passengers) expect a level of functionality and features on par with their smartphones. Similarly, setups like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto largely bypass the native car tech experience, much to the chagrin of automakers who don’t want to cede all of that to tech companies.
The VW app store announcement is notable for a few reasons, including the fact that it will be made available on current-model internal combustion cars like the A4 and Q5— not just the next-gen electric vehicles where connected services and over-the-air updates will likely become the norm.
However, Hilgenberg said the app store is crucial to VW’s plans for exactly that — a network of connected vehicles running on the same software platforms, even if they range from humble Volkswagens to expensive Porsches.
“If you talk about 40 million connected vehicles by 2030, this is relevant for developers to say, hey, why not [curate] my application also in that ecosystem?” Hilgenberg said.
In TikTok’s case in particular, it’s yet another sign of the explosive, almost overnight popularity of the often-controversial social video platform. VW’s move speaks to the ubiquity of the app with Gen Z users, especially in China, which is also the world’s largest car market. In Mercedes’ case, that directly informed the decision to add the service to its own upcoming cars, TechCrunch reported.
Given TikTok’s data privacy and security concerns, Hilgenberg said Cariad has been “very strict” on this point and said third-party apps are not able to write to the automotive software itself. And unlike the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, there won’t be an in-cabin selfie camera for recording TikToks in any VW vehicles. “For now, the TikTok App can only be used to consume content,” a spokesperson said.
The app store rollout is also a big software test for Volkswagen , which has struggled in that regard for years despite an aggressive push toward electric and connected cars. Specifically, the company’s Cariad division has been tasked with unifying previously disparate initiatives and platforms, all to serve a new generation of EVs that will rely heavily on software for charging, updates, automated driving, and more.
It’s a difficult balancing act. Though it faces tough competition from Tesla, BYD, and others, VW seeks to be the world leader in EV production. Previously, however, this has led VW to rush cars to market with software that wasn’t quite ready for prime time, even though advanced features like over-the-air updates and battery management are crucial to their success. The current VW CEO’s immediate predecessor was ousted in part over these problems.
Cariad spokesperson Fabian Lebersorger said the division’s plans this year include debuting new software platforms and improved driver-assistance systems for upcoming vehicles like the electric Porsche Macan and the Audi Q6 E-tron.
“We have adjusted our roadmaps to more realistic time schedules,” Lebersorger said. “2023 is the year of delivery for Cariad.”