I got my first hands-on experience in a vehicle with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Hyundai had a couple of new Sonatas equipped with a new Display Audio touchscreen head unit updated with the latest software to support the in-vehicle interfaces from Apple and Google. Recognizing that drivers increasingly rely on smartphones for entertainment and navigation, the Display Audio unit lacks both embedded navigation and a CD player, something that will likely become the norm in coming years.
The upcoming launch of Android Auto and CarPlay marks the most promising advance in infotainment systems since the January 2007 debut of Ford SYNC. Apple, Google and Microsoft have made tremendous progress in improving mobile device interfaces and capabilities since the reveal of the iPhone which came just two days after SYNC. Unfortunately, for the most part, automakers are still doing a pretty miserable job of designing the interfaces of their built-in infotainment systems but Google and Apple are hoping to fix that.
From the perspective of the automakers, both CarPlay and Android Auto actually function in a pretty similar fashion. In the case of Hyundai, when an Android or iPhone are plugged into the USB port, a corresponding icon appears on the center screen. Tapping this icon, brings up the CarPlay or Android interface. In order for this to happen, automaker engineers have to add some code to their head unit that acts kind of like device drivers on a computer. The software translates the respective control inputs available in that vehicle into standard signals for the respective mobile operating system.
Whether the car has a capacitive or resistive touchscreen or a remote control device with a non-touch screen, this abstraction layer of software translates the hardware signals and sends the the same messages to the phone. This way, the mobile device doesn’t really have know anything about the vehicle hardware and app developers only have to deal with the Apple or Android extensions once instead of coding for every automotive brand. Voice inputs are also redirected to the phone for interpretation by Siri or Google voice actions rather than whatever is built into the vehicle.
Once the mobile interface is activated, the phone and the cloud actually handle all of the hard work. The interface is generated by the phone and projected to the car display which is why both systems need to be connected via USB instead of Bluetooth.
For iPhone users
CarPlay produces a simplified version of the traditional iPhone interface with each page containing a grid of eight large icons on a black background and a visual representation of the home button that can be used to trigger Siri. Most of the currently available apps are default Apple apps including music, podcasts, Apple maps and messages although the usual suspect third-parties like Pandora and iHeartRadio are on hand as well. Switching apps or making a call requires a tap of the home button, just like the phone. A long press on the home button triggers Siri and whatever you say is sent directly to the phone via the built-in microphone in the car.
Overall the interface worked smoothly although the iPhone that was connected in the Sonata seemed to struggle to get a good data connection from the Hyundai stand which was centrally located in Cobo Center. That made it difficult for Siri to process queries and maps would only half load. Songs that were locally stored on the phone had no trouble playing.
For Robot fans
Android Auto brings up a Google Now style card interface that will be instantly familiar to Android users. The car screen gets the same stylized background images that appear on the phone’s Now screen. A persistent strip along the bottom of the screen includes icons that take you directly to Google Maps, home, phone, messaging apps and audio apps. Tapping the directions icon triggers navigation via the maps available through the phone. The headphone icon brings up a list of cards with links to each of the approved audio apps which includes Google Play Music, PocketCasts and more. Acceptable messaging apps will read out incoming messages and allow replies by voice input.
Like CarPlay, Android Auto ran smoothly powered by a year-old Nexus 5 phone. The Nexus had no connectivity issues and the engineer I sat with was able to to demo the sort of contextual voice search Google showed at last year’s I/O developer conference. While sitting in a car in downtown Detroit, he asked Google how the weather was in San Diego. After the response he asked “what are the hours of the zoo?” without specifying a location. Rather than giving the hours of the nearby Detroit Zoo, Android Auto read out the hours of the San Diego zoo and provided a link to directions.
Beyond just having a clean responsive interface, this ability to anticipate what information will need next based on what has been said, where the vehicle is or what time of day it is, can enable Android Auto to dramatically reduce the mental workload on the driver and minimize distraction on the road. Currently, Google is only supporting third-party apps for audio and messaging although additional categories such as other navigation apps are likely to be included at some future date.
Hyundai did acknowledge that automakers will have some influence over what apps are allowed to appear in the two competing car interfaces. Google was not yet ready to announce exactly what the process would be for these approvals although it will presumably happen through the Open Automotive Alliance which was announced at the 2014 International CES. Apple has not responded to any request for comment on the topic but they will likely maintain tight control over the app approval process just as they do on mobile devices.
Both Apple and Google had hoped to get their systems into vehicles by the end of 2014 but the process of testing and validating software in vehicles and making sure it meets all of the regulatory requirements is far more stringent than for phones. Most major automakers have publicly announced plans to support both platforms and Hyundai said they should launch later this summer on the 2016 Sonata and other vehicles. Some 2015 models will also be able to get a software update to provide support.