On a recent trip to San Francisco, I crossed the bridge connecting SFO's terminals to board the light rail, commuting a couple stops down the line to the rental car garage. I walked past what seemed like 20 aisles of 100 cars each in the Avis section, eventually arriving at my ride for the week, a newer-model Mazda3. I just wanted to get going: I was exhausted, in the way a transcontinental flight exhausts you without even moving a muscle, and I was a little exasperated that my car was about as far from the garage's entrance as it could possibly be. (The perils of not being a Platinum member, or a Diamond member, or whatever it is they call you if you're a preferred rental-car client.)
But it's not that simple, of course. You can't "just get going." There's a moment of adjusting mirrors and seats, a moment of familiarizing yourself with the car's controls, a moment of figuring out how to turn on the headlights without accidentally activating the windshield wipers. And then there's the uniquely modern phenomenon of pairing your phone to the car's built-in Bluetooth connection, because you'd rather hear your own music than try to suss out this exotic locale's best radio station. Furthermore, if you're navigationally challenged like me — or you've voluntarily ceded control of your life to algorithms, as Google would like us to do — you've also plugged your destination into your phone, because many rental cars still don't offer built-in navigation systems. My Mazda3 certainly didn't.
There's the uniquely modern phenomenon of pairing your phone to the car's Bluetooth connection
By the time I was done futzing with the car — which has a cryptic settings menu kneecapped by its archaic, calculator-like LCD display — I think I'd been sitting in it for a good 15 minutes. A puzzled security guard clad in a bright orange safety vest peered through my windshield from a few dozen feet away, clearly wondering what was going on and why I hadn't left. I gave him a thumbs-up and a forced smile before diving back into the Mazda's controls.
Cars don't have to be this complicated. And for over a century, they weren't! You had a steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, a gear shifter, and perhaps a radio. Navigation was done with a map, if it was done at all. But smartphones have changed us: for better or worse, they've become the most important inanimate objects in our lives. Through customization and use patterns, they've also become extensions of who we are — our personalities reflect on our phones, and vice versa. You don't have to look far beyond a colorful case or lock screen wallpaper to pick up on that.
And we expect to have our smartphones — our little electronic personality boxes — at our sides, even when we're driving.
That brings us to Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay, which together represent the Grand Unified Theory of the tech and auto industries: that by bringing the most critical elements of your phone to the dashboard, it's a win-win. Drivers stop looking at their phones and crashing into pedestrians and other drivers, often with tragic results; automakers finally capture the mojo of the smartphone revolution that they've almost entirely missed over the last decade; and tech companies finally find a home in one of the last stubbornly low-tech sanctuaries in our lives.
For some, these features, which will be almost universally adopted by major automakers over the coming year, will be taken for granted. They won't have a significant impact on car usage or on buying decisions — over a relatively short span of time, shoppers will simply come to expect that their next car supports native connections to their Android phones and iPhones. But for others, the commercial release of Android Auto in production cars represents the tip of a very, very long spear that will fundamentally change the way we think about car ownership.
Cars have already been central to the development of the sharing economy, catnip to millions of urban millennials and their alleged desire to stop owning things — just look at the success of services like Zipcar and Car2Go, or Ford's announcement earlier today that it's launching a sharing service in London. But those same millennials have also grown up treating their smartphones like family members, and these two phenomena — the personal phone, the coldly impersonal shared car — are at odds. My experience with the Mazda3 at SFO is wholly indicative of that: the menus didn't make any sense, and nothing about the car felt connected to me, even once I'd managed to get Bluetooth connected. It's a bit ironic, really, that cars have become more complicated to learn just as we've become more willing than ever before to share them.
The car doesn't have to belong to you
Android Auto and CarPlay, in their small way, start to bridge this dissonance by making your car — any car — an extension of your phone. In turn, it becomes an extension of your personality. The car doesn't have to belong to you. That sounds almost silly; today, a car's typical Bluetooth connection makes the phone an extension of the vehicle, not the other way around. But that's changing.
You can start to see how this all aligns: hundreds of thousands of anonymous cars, driven by millions of people for an hour or two at a time, are able to become personal again. It's not an overstatement to suggest that technologies like Android Auto and CarPlay (and their more feature-complete successors) will give these vehicles chameleon-like superpowers. When every car can feel like it belongs to you mere seconds after you get in and close the driver's-side door, owning your own car becomes a little less compelling of a proposition.
Giving up on car ownership isn't for everyone, and it won't ever be: car-sharing doesn't work in rural areas, for instance, and it may not even work very well once Google and Uber get their armadas of self-driving taxis on the highway over the next couple decades. There'll also be enthusiasts (myself included) who are dead-set on owning their own car, even if it doesn't make good sense. But I'm willing to bet that extremely intelligent smartphone integration — personalization through standardization — is the tipping point for entire segments of the population.