There are more than two billion smartphones in active use globally now with the vast majority of them running either Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS. People have access to all of the world’s information and entertainment almost anywhere they go and they’ve come to expect to be able to use it anytime they want, including in the car. Thus, 2014 brought the announcements of Apple Carplay and Android Auto.
When we bought our VW Jetta in late 2009, it came with a complimentary six month subscription to Sirius satellite radio. While that was nice, we had been a podcast and portable digital music family since the earliest days of those mediums. Even before the Jetta we’d been connecting iPods to cars for years and using Bluetooth with our phones. The arrival of the new car came in the same month that we got our first Android phones and wireless streaming has long since been the order of the day, so paying $13 per month for satellite radio just didn’t make sense. However, manipulating the phone to change podcasts or music playlists was a less than ideal ergonomic or safety solution.
When Apple and Google each announced their intention to fix the problem of drivers messing with their phones while driving, most major automakers announced their intention to provide support for one or most cases both interfaces. Fortunately, the new smartphone interfaces were also made available to aftermarket car audio manufacturers like Pioneer, Alpine and Kenwood.
Both solutions are effectively just driver layers that translate the control inputs from the car whether it be an iDrive-style control knob, or touchscreen to signals that can be interpreted by the corresponding AA/Carplay apps on the phone. Those apps then pass the signals to the relevant app and project the interface to the head unit.
When using apps on your phone, the designers have a great deal of freedom in designing the user interface and there is no guarantee that any two music, podcast or mapping apps will function in the same way. Apple and Google have both recognized this as a problem when operating a vehicle. If the driver has to hunt around for the controls they need when they switch from Spotify to NPR News to Pocket Casts, it will take their attention away from the road even longer. Regardless of your preferred mobile OS, these systems filter out the default phone interface and present the content from the app onto a standardized vehicle interface with a simple and consistent layout and big touch targets.
Plugging in a supported Android phone automatically launches the Android Auto interface but getting that support means your phone will have to be running at least Android 5.0 or higher which is on about one-quarter of the phones currently in use. If you have an older phone that hasn’t been updated to at least 5.0, Android Auto isn’t going to work. For the rest of us with up-to-date phones, anyone that has used Google Now will feel immediately at home in AA.
The backdrop uses the same simplified landscape images that appeared on the top of the Google Now screen prior to the recent update. A black strip runs across the bottom of the screen with five simple icons; navigation, phone, home, media and mode. The standard Android microphone icon sits in the upper right with a hamburger menu button on the upper left. The home screen shows a scrollable list of cards with recently used functions like the most recent caller, destination and audio. If navigation is currently active, a displaying the next turn is at the top of the stack, along with a play/pause widget for whatever media is playing.
Tapping the navigation button takes you directly to Google Maps with a familiar interface including the hamburger button that slides in a menu from the left with suggestions, categories and a traffic toggle. Suggestions shows your recent Google destination search results, with a single tap initiating navigation.
One of the biggest advantages of using Android Auto is instant access to Google’s amazing voice recognition. Unlike factory built-in navigation which has only the points of interest database that was included when the car rolled off the line, Google can find virtually anything even if you don’t know the exact name. This is a vastly superior approach to spending $500 to $1,000 or more on factory navigation. The only downside is that you need data connectivity so if you’re out of range of a cell tower you could be out of luck. Unfortunately Google hasn’t yet enabled AA support for any of the alternative mapping apps available including Waze or Here maps which supports completely offline maps. Hopefully Google will address this soon or else make its limited offline map storage capability more robust.
If you’re trying to get somewhere you haven’t recently searched for or saved, Google’s voice recognition comes to the rescue. If your car has a voice activation button it will trigger the voice control when AA is active or you can just tap the microphone and tell Google to navigate you anywhere you want to go in a single step without having to go through the cumbersome menus in most built-in systems.
The microphone supplied by Pioneer with its voice enabled head units like the 4100NEX works well even in my 10-year-old Mustang and as long as your phone has a data connection, you’re good to go.
Tapping the phone button gives you access to your recent call log and contacts list. As in maps, the voice search works great here so you don’t have to scroll through the list to find the number you’re looking for. That’s a good thing because one of the limitations of AA is that the lists only display about the first 20 items, presumably so you don’t have keep scrolling.
If you want to send a text message, just tap the microphone and say “Send text message to <contact name> and then the message without stopping. The transcribed message will be read back to you for verification before sending. I’ve found this to work very well even in cars without AA just using the “OK Google” voice recognition. If you receive a message, a notification card slides down from the top of the screen and it will be read outloud.
On the media page, you’ll get a list of cards for the compatible media apps installed on your phone. In my case these included Google Play Music, Spotify, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio and TuneIn Radio and NPR One. The card interface reduces the information density, leaving lots of white space but only three cards are displayed per screen so if you have more apps, it may require a bit more scrolling. While the low information density might be seen as a disadvantage, anyone that has used the cluttered MyFord Touch will appreciate the breathing room.
Regardless of which app you select, the interface presented by AA looks the same with album art in the background, a wide, white bar with player controls and of course the hamburger button. At the right end of the control bar, you’ll find an ellipsis button that brings up alternate controls such as thumbs up/down. Using a consistent UI that you are familiar with no matter what app you are using works much better on the road and helps to ensure that you aren’t fumbling around trying to find a function.
In the Google Play Music app, the menus don’t provide direct access to everything available on the phone such as a list of artists or albums, instead limiting you to playlists, radio stations etc. This is deliberate doesn’t choice to prevent the driver from scrolling through lists that might contain thousands of items. Access to play an artist, album or song is limited to voice controls. Other app developers such as TuneIn should take direction from Google on this because they try to display everything in the menus that slide in from the side, ending up with truncated lists. For example going to local radio stations only displays FM station streams up through 94.7.
The Apple Approach
Like Google, Apple has created a simplified version of its hugely popular phone interface to enable drivers to use some of their favorite apps while driving. In Apple’s case, that means a grid of eight round-cornered square icons per page on a stark, black background. You can swipe left and right to get to additional pages. A vertical bar on the left edge of the screen provides a virtual version of the traditional iPhone home button, plus time and a cell signal strength indicator. Carplay works on any iPhone 5 or later with iOS 8 or newer.
The top row of the first screen is reserved for Apple’s default apps, phone, music, maps and messages with the rest of the compatible apps that are found on your phone filling out additional pages. The usual suspects such as Spotify, Stitcher, iHeartRadio and Pocket Casts have already built in support for both competing car interfaces. If you have already have a preferred mobile platform, you can rest easy in the knowledge that you won’t be missing out on anything significant by not switching.
Like Android Auto, CarPlay presents the data from compatible apps in a standardized interface that dispenses with the work of the original app designers in favor of cascading menu lists that look surprisingly spartan by Apple standards. All lists consist of white text on a black background.
Once you get down to the level of actually playing media, function buttons are added to the metadata of whatever is playing. Just as on an iPhone or iPad, a long-press of the virtual home button will awaken Siri to listen to your voice commands. While Siri has always had more personality and a more conversational tone compared to Google voice control, it has been often been more hit and miss on accuracy although that has reportedly improved of late. Not being a regular iOS user, I’ll refrain from judgement on that. Assuming Siri does work with your voice, you can perform the same sort of functions such as finding points of interest to navigate to, playing music and sending text messages by dictating.
Controlling your car like a phone
Both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto provide vastly superior user interfaces to the often cluttered layouts provided so far by either OEMs or aftermarket audio companies including Pioneer. Despite their relative inexperience in the automotive space, Apple and Google have clearly recognized the importance of simplicity and consistency so that drivers don’t have to hunt and peck on the screen.
Just as we’ve learned in other aspects of life over the years, prohibition rarely ever works and in this case drivers are invariably going to use their phones for a variety of functions including calling, messaging, navigation and media playback. By providing an interface that is both clean and consistent across apps, the whole effect is less likely to frustrate drivers while allowing them to mostly keep eyes on the road and hands on the wheel instead of fumbling with a phone. CarPlay and Android Auto should be an important step forward.
Because most of the work is done on the phone rather than the head unit, both systems are actually quite responsive although Carplay was noticeably slower in populating lists. Neither system demonstrated the kind of lag or instability you’ll frequently get from many OEM infotainment systems. Tapping, swiping and pinching works well enough even though the resistive touchscreen used by Pioneer isn’t as responsive as the capacitive screens on modern phones.
A strength of the way Apple and Google have implemented these systems is that there will be many aftermarket solutions for those that can’t afford to buy a new car yet. In addition to the head units announced by Pioneer, Alpine (CarPlay-only) and Kenwood have announced some new units. While Pioneer’s entry-level offering, the AVH-4100NEX is a reasonable first-generation product that implements CarPlay and Android Auto well, it is somewhat let down by the base hardware and at $700, I just can’t recommend it.
On the new car front, Hyundai has already launched Android Auto on the 2016 Sonata as well as a software update for 2015 models. Additional Hyundai models including the new Tucson will get Android Auto as well as CarPlay in the coming months. The refreshed 2016 Honda Accord and the all-new Civic are both available now with both Carplay and AA while most 2016 Chevrolets are now or will soon be shipping with both interfaces as well. We can expect to see many more OEMs are also introducing support for both CarPlay and Android in the coming months.
As for the aftermarket, if Pioneer or someone else produced an aftermarket unit with a fixed screen and no optical drive in the $200-300 range, I’d be much more inclined to recommend it. However, in lieu of that, unless you really want a head unit with a DVD drive that also supports your phone, it’s probably best to sit tight for a little longer before upgrading your current ride.