Smartphone, take the wheel.
It's been two years since Apple and Google announced CarPlay and Android Auto, their proprietary, smartphone-powered interfaces for select car models, and they've come a long way: more than 100 car models either currently support CarPlay and Android Auto or will soon, according to Apple and Google. So I finally had the chance to do a side-by-side comparison of them this week (see Versus video above).
I was coming from much more modest dashboard — my 2007 car has an after-market Bluetooth stereo kit, and about 60 percent of the time it works all the time — so you might think that any "smart" dashboard would be an upgrade for me. But that's not always the case. I've also test-driven some newer cars with all kinds of fancy control centers and HUDs and touch-sensitive knobs and I've walked (driven) away thinking, There's just too much going on. I'm trying to get to my next meeting or a friend's house, not land a spaceship; more importantly, complicated 3D nav systems and cascading sub-menus aren't exactly conducive to staying focused on the road.
That's where CarPlay and Android Auto come in. By tethering your smartphone to the car dashboard you're able to bypass whatever interface your car manufacturer has decided to foist upon you. You can run the maps apps you normally run on your smartphone. You can interact mostly with your voice — in fact, you're forced to, for safety reasons. Your iMessages can all be read aloud to you; so can third-party app messages on Android Auto. You can play your locally stored music, your Spotify playlists, your Stitcher podcasts, all with a minimal amount of interaction and annoyance.
There's something to be said about plugging in and having a familiar UI right there in your car
There are differences between the two — for example, it takes only one tap to get to music from another app in Android Auto, whereas CarPlay forces you to go Home first, then to Music. Android Auto mostly disables your phone while you're driving, but you can still play with your iPhone (for better or worse) while it's powering CarPlay. Really the biggest difference is that Apple has stuck with a familiar grid of apps for its main interface, whereas Android Auto shows you notifications, or cards, as it thinks you need to see them.
I liked CarPlay better of the two. It even made me warm up to Siri again. Both are more intuitive than a lot of automaker-designed interfaces I've seen.
Of course, in order to use CarPlay or Android Auto, you'll need a newer car model that supports one or both of the systems (or deal with the hassle of installing an aftermarket system), and you'll need the latest software on your smartphone. It's hard to imagine most people running out to buy a car just so they can access a new UI. But that's not necessarily the point, and rarely is when it comes to consumer buying cycles. Whenever you are ready to buy a car, the tech companies just want to make sure their software will run on it.
Our phones have taught us to expect constantly updated software and interfaces that don’t make us want to tear our hair out. Until more car companies can figure those things out, handing your main dashboard panel over to Apple or Google is is a good move — and hopefully more of them will do just that.