Android Auto and Apple CarPlay: Smartphone as Automobile

Android figurine on laptop

Automobile technology has come a very long way over the past ten to fifteen years. 

360-degree cameras.

Lane departure warnings.

Adaptive cruise control.

Those are just the examples people are most familiar. Hundreds of advancements, both big and small, have transformed cars and trucks into mobile computers, making them safer and easier and more convenient to operate. 

These are not merely add-on features or ones strictly found in luxury cars. Many of the newest and most advanced technologies are standard on many makes and models.

Something Missing with Infotainment

Infotainment screen in car

In spite of all this new tech, one area where manufacturers seemed to lag was in a vehicle's central infotainment system. 

From economy hatchbacks to luxury SUVs, these smallish centralized touchscreens left much to be desired - unresponsive controls, spotty Bluetooth connectivity, and suspect navigation.

For many drivers, a better alternative was to pull out their smartphone and use one of the device's many apps to listen to music and navigate around town.

Which, of course, didn't make sense. Most importantly, it's not exactly safe.

Aside from safety, you pay between $500 and $1000 for your phone, and yet it outperforms the central controls of an automobile that costs 30, 40, or 50 times as much. 

In the past five years, however, automakers have grown wise to what their customers want and what tech giants like Google and Apple can offer - technology that is familiar, easy to use, and safe.

Enter Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

Tech You Love in the Car You Drive

The basic principles of Android's Auto and Apple's CarPlay are, for the most part, the same.

With both systems, when you plug your phone into your car via the USB port, the device takes control of the vehicle infotainment system. With CarPlay, you see an iPhone type interface on the car's display. Auto mirrors Google Now's setup. Newer model vehicles will allow you to connect via your car's Bluetooth.

When connected, you have three options for using the interface - through voice with either Google Assistant or Apple's Siri, via the touchscreen, or with the car's physical knobs and buttons. This varies based on make and model, but the capability is there for the majority of automobiles. 

Both platforms take the best of what makes a phone useful while driving, providing the fewest number of distractions for the driver and reducing accidents. 

No, you can't play Candy Crush while cruising interstate highways. What you can do is use your smartphone's core apps more seamlessly. For both interfaces, this includes native apps like messaging, music, and maps. You can use a limited number of third party apps as well.

For example, if you use an iPhone but prefer the Google Map app, you can navigate with it through CarPlay. Similarly, both platforms provide access to popular universal apps like Spotify, Audible, and Waze.

From Curiosity to Commonplace

Smartphone in hands

If you're worried your new car of choice won't sync up with your smartphone, there's no need. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are both becoming as ubiquitous as the cupholder - it's rarer to find a newer model car without the connectivity. The keyword being new.

As a relatively recent piece of tech - Apple CarPlay was first released in 2014, Android Auto a year later - early adoption was slow. Only a few manufacturers offered the compatibility with Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and Hyundai being among the first to prominently feature CarPlay.

However, the past two years has seen explosive adoption for both apps.

Currently, Android Auto features on more than 500 different models from nearly 50 different car brands. For Apple CarPlay, the availability includes 500 models from over 60 manufacturers. Starting with 2019 models, almost all automakers will have the capability to connect with either platform.

Older model cars, however, are not entirely left out. Auto and CarPlay are also available on aftermarket systems from companies such as Alpine, Kenwood, Pioneer, and JVC.

Which System is Better?

Unlike most products vying for market share, the debate on whether Auto or CarPlay is better is unique. After all, which one you use is dependent on the type of smartphone you own.

Let's be honest, unless you're in the market for a new device, straying too far from the smartphone ecosystem you're most committed to is unlikely.

Additionally, with all major auto brands soon supporting both applications, regardless of the car you purchase, it will connect to your device. 

With that noted, the differences between the two are subtle - very subtle. Let's examine the central features of using these systems while driving.

Voice Assistance

The primary purpose of Auto and CarPlay is to make driving safer. Instead of constantly glancing at your phone, both apps keep your eyes where they belong - on the road. Aiding this more than any other feature is voice assistance via Google's Assistant or Apple's Siri.

Even though both apps provide stripped down and markedly similar functionality - make a call, dictate a text, request a song - Google Assistant is the better listener and tasker.  Although Siri continues to make strides, it lacks the intuitiveness of Google's voice solution.

Calls and Texting

With placing calls or dictating texts, both apps do well in getting the job done with the least amount of distraction. CarPlay operates just as an iPhone would and streamlines the process. Auto limits you to pre-set message replies, which you can edit when not behind the wheel. Ultimately you can do a bit more with CarPlay, but Auto, thanks again to Google Assistant, does is tasks a bit better.

Navigation

The most significant advantage of linking Auto or CarPlay is they provide far superior navigation versus the pedestrian version that comes with most vehicles. Google Maps is the gold standard, but Apple Maps has finally evolved into a decent alternative for those highly committed to Apple products. 

Both apps allow the use of Waze, which, if traffic is a common headache on your commute, is a massive bonus for your daily drive.

Audio

Perhaps the most utilized feature of either system, the audio attributes for both Auto and CarPlay are incredibly straightforward. Regardless if you use the native music player, Google Play Music or Apple Music, respectively, or a third party player, all are simple and intuitive.

Safety

For overall safety, Apple's CarPlay is the better app for one simple reason - upon connecting with your vehicle, the phone's display becomes inactive. Android allows you to use their app through your phone's screen. While certainly a convenience if your car doesn't have a modern screen, the CarPlay does reinforce the central theme of these tools - to avoid distracted driving.

Ease of Use

Apple gets another slight nod as its CarPlay feature is integrated directly into its iOS. With Auto, you must download a separate app, basically out of necessity.  Not really a huge consideration, but in our age of instant everything, the extra step will matter to some.

Overall

There is no clear winner, as the choice comes down to whether you prefer the Android or Apple ecosystems. For those without an opinion, and looking for the most accessible platform, Apple CarPlay would be the better choice. Sure Siri leaves plenty to be desired, but you can use still use Google Maps, and there are fewer steps to getting started.

Making Good Platforms Even Better

Android phone in hand

As with any technology, regular and relevant updates are critical to keeping systems current and cutting edge. After several years to mature, both apps are set to see considerable updates before the end of this year.

Android Auto's biggest updates include a more user-friendly design. Ditching it's old, blocky look, the app now features new fonts, sharper color contrasts, and a new dark theme. It will also make better use of a car's infotainment screen, regardless of its size. 

Additional features include:

  • Last App Used - Instead of restarting a driver's preferred navigation or audio app, the system defaults to the most recent app used, making it less clunky. 

  • Improved Navigation Bar - Users can see elements like turn-by-turn directions with the general navigation bar at the same time.

  • Dedicated Notifications -  You can scroll through and preview messages or notifications more efficiently.

  • Google Assistant - The assistant is now accessible from the corner of every screen regardless if you're using a map, music, or other apps.

For Apple's CarPlay, big changes are in store when iOS 13 releases towards the end of the year. 

Similar to Auto, CarPlay features an improved visual design with a new dashboard and more directly accessible options. You'll still have access to apps but can see which song is playing, navigation, suggestions from Siri, and HomeKit (if you use it to turn on exterior light or open the garage). 

Other features include:

  • Apple Music - The music player will have a streamlined appearance and functionality for scrolling through music.

  • Siri - The personal assistant gets a little better and will integrate with Waze, Google Maps, and third-party music apps, including Amazon, Google, and Spotify.

  • Calendar - Improved integration for Calendar, with the ability to call into conference calls at the touch of a button.

  • Privacy Feature - If you're in the car with your boss or co-workers, a Do Not Disturb feature will silence messages from being read aloud or showing up on the screen.

Final Thoughts

There's little question that the automobile tech of today is pointing towards a future with autonomous, self-driving cars crisscrossing the nation's roads. When that time comes, people will be able to use their smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other personal device without concern for safety.

Until then, curbing distracted driving remains a priority. While there's little chance of taking away an individual's smartphone while in a car, integrating the device with the car itself is the next best thing. 

Whether it's Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, you can be sure that your next drive will be one at the height of technology, safety, and convenience.

Written by Anna Kučírková, August 6, 2019.