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The reason carmakers bought Nokia’s map unit? Google

Fear of becoming too heavily reliant on U.S. tech giants Apple and Google accelerated the decision of Germany's biggest carmakers to buy Nokia's HERE mapping unit, analysts told CNBC.

BMW, Audi and Daimler announced they were to acquire HERE for 2.8 billion euros ($3.1 billion) on Monday. This so-called high-definition mapping will form the basis for driverless cars as the auto industry moves towards increasingly autonomous features in vehicles.

Google and Apple's own mapping software is a potential rival to HERE. Analysts said that if the consortium of carmakers didn't buy Nokia's system, they would either have to develop their own in a costly process, or use the technology from Silicon Valley's tech giants, an option they wanted to avoid.

The logo of Nokia Oyj's connected driving maps unit HERE sits on the rear passenger door of a Land Rover SUV automobile, produced by Tata Motors Ltd.'s Jaguar Land Rover unit, outside the HERE offices in Berlin.
Krisztian Bocsi | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The logo of Nokia Oyj's connected driving maps unit HERE sits on the rear passenger door of a Land Rover SUV automobile, produced by Tata Motors Ltd.'s Jaguar Land Rover unit, outside the HERE offices in Berlin.

"One of their big potential competitors in this is of course Google and they probably wouldn't want to be dependent on what might be a potential competitor for their maps," Martin Garner, senior vice-president at CCS Insight, told CNBC over the phone Tuesday.

"They are wary of Google. So since there was an option to have maps from a non-Google company, they were interested. The maps are so important to the future that it made sense to them to buy HERE."

The benefits for carmakers

HERE had operating profit of 46 million euros for the first half of 2015, according to Nokia. The three German auto companies will take an equal stake in the venture.

But here is not just for car maps. Other services such as mobile apps and websites that require mapping services employ the technology. The German automakers intend to keep the service "as an open, independent and value creating platform for cloud-based maps and other mobility service", according to a statement.

By doing so, analysts said that Google's competitors will have still have an alternative rather than to rely on the search giant for its maps.

"Mobile companies—many with consumer-facing mobile clients including Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Baidu and Samsung—see an independent mapping solution as critical in order to compete with Google for mobile advertising dollars," IHS said in a note.

The demand for mapping systems is only going to increase, particularly in the automotive industry. Data provided by the maps will allow cars to become autonomous through route mapping and knowing where traffic jams are, for example. IHS forecasts 11.8 million new autonomous vehicle sales in 2035 and with the consortium now in control of HERE, that trend could quickly become a reality.

"By acquiring a global platform in HERE, it also may establish a de facto standard, giving the industry a unique opportunity to rally around specifications or processes that could in fact hasten the onset of a connected and automated future mobility ecosystem," IHS said.

"Possibly the most important aspect is that the consortium will also own their own data, thus not having to figure out who controls customer data."

Complete autonomy?

Still, the acquisition of HERE may not allow BMW, Audi and Daimler to be completely independent from Google and Apple. While the consortium is in control of the mapping technology, they do not have their own advanced in-car operating systems (OS).

Google currently has Android Auto and Apple has Carplay, both operating systems designed specifically for cars to allow people to make calls and access music, for example. Analysts said that it is likely BMW, Audi and Daimler may still support these OS's in their cars.

"This only gives them the maps, it doesn't give them an in-car operating system and that is a separate discussion," Garner said.

"This doesn't answer all the questions about autonomous driving."