If you’re like most people, you love your car and you hate your car tech. It’s a simple fact: In car infotainment systems lag far behind the rest of the consumer tech field, for a variety of reasons. Even the best systems are flawed, and the bottom of the barrel is littered with some truly spectacular failures.
The dire state of infotainment may be about to change thanks to the intervention of tech juggernauts Google and Apple. As we look to the 2016 model year, may cars will come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. These new systems have some important differences, but in essence they take those well known mobile operating systems and run them through the car’s infotainment system.
On the surface this seems like a brilliant idea and a drastic improvement, and that’s not wrong… but it’s also not the whole story.
One of the biggest problems with modern infotainment systems is just how badly they pair with smartphones. For reviewers like myself, each week with a new press car begins with an epic battle as I try to get the infotainment system to pair with my phone and do relatively simple things like download my contact list, or acknowledge that, yes I really would like to listen to that podcast.
Both CarPlay and Android Auto give drivers direct access to their phones.
Whether you are a devotee of the evil Google empire or the black-turtlenecked theocracy of Apple, current infotainment systems just can’t keep up with that slab of silicon in your pocket. CarPlay and Android Auto both promise to change that. While both systems have distinct features that their makers and fan boys can fight over, they operate in a remarkably similar way.
In both cases the user’s smartphone takes over the infotainment system, using the car’s touch screen to mirror the phone’s interface.
The biggest benefit of this is the most obvious: Drivers can use the interface — developed at great cost, by the industry’s best engineers — that they are most familiar with. This stands in stark contrast to the car’s native interface, which is not only new to the driver but also developed by smaller teams, with less time and fewer resources.
Not only that, but drivers also have far more access to their phone’s content. Both CarPlay and Android Auto give drivers direct access to their phones, neatly sidestepping the problems faced by users trying to pair their phones.
In fact the limitations in both systems are there for safety rather than technical reasons. Thankfully for pedestrians, bicyclists, and other motorists, neither CarPlay nor Android Auto will allow drivers to dig into their email or text messages. Instead Siri and Google will be nice enough to read them out load. Great, right? Right?
Despite the beauty of being able to access your calendar or the angriest of birds on the go, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t all sunshine and roses.
CarPlay and Android Auto work by completely shutting out anything the car’s infotainment system can offer.
The most obvious problem is that Google and Apple haven’t really addressed integration. Sure, CarPlay and Android Auto work beautifully when it comes to showing off the features of smartphones, but they accomplish it by completely shutting out anything the car’s infotainment system can offer.
For many users this may not be a great loss, as all they want out of an infotainment system is a stereo system that can also tell them how to get places. However, cutting-edge infotainment systems offer a great deal more than that. Not only can they switch through different categories of features, from audio to navigation to climate control, but many have begun to integrate performance apps.
Dodge, GM, and Nissan have pioneered in this area with a range of apps that capture g-forces, lap times, and a wide variety of engine performance data. Land Rover has shown off the benefits of infotainment in off-roading, with apps that track traction and vehicle lean, highlight obstacles on camera, and even show water levels for fording.
More practically, EVs, hybrids, and other high efficiency vehicles are beginning to show off their stuff with apps that both track and offer suggestions for efficient driving.
Even for more mundane apps like navigation, there may be reason to leave well-enough alone. The ability to integrate directions and controls across touch screens, heads-up displays, and instrument cluster displays shows the advantages of giving the car control of infotainment.
Then there is the subtler but potentially just as significant problem of ergonomics. Both the iOS and Android systems were designed to be used on mobile handheld devices. This defined the size and shape of icons, as well as the swipe-based gestures. A car touchscreen shares very little of the ergonomic realities of a smartphone or tablet. In use this makes the CarPlay and Android Auto clumsier than their smartphone counterparts.
So clearly the initial entry of tech giants into car infotainment has promise and problems in equal measure. However, it also points the direction that infotainment might be headed, and it comes down to operating systems. And here, despite the fact that I am an Apple user, I have to point to Google’s business model with Android.
Google created its mobile operating system and then told device makers and app designers to go outside and play. The result is a wide variety of devices, with a common and relatively open source backdrop.
There is even a suggestion that this model will be carried over into car infotainment. Subaru’s new Starlink system is based off of Android bones, and while it isn’t a complete success it is a dramatic improvement over Subaru’s previous attempts, as well as one of the better systems from a small automaker.
If Apple and Google both get into the market of providing operating systems, rather than just porting their existing tech onto our car’s screens, there is the potential for real progress. Regardless, we’re in a clear period of change — and all that change means consumers will be the ultimate winners.