Smartphones are our lifeline to the Internet. We've become reliant on them to get directions, stream music and keep in touch with friends and family. In fact, the average person picks up a smartphone roughly 1,500 times a week, according to a 2014 study conducted by a U.K.-based marketing agency. As such, when people get into their cars, chances are that they are not going to ignore their smartphones. Instead, they will try to integrate the phones into their driving routine. They put them in cupholders as makeshift speakers, mount them on the dash to see turn-by-turn directions, or worse, hold them and text while driving. None of these has been an elegant — or safe — solution to the problem of adapting a smartphone to car use.
How They Work
For Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to interact with a car, the vehicle must be outfitted with the proper hardware and the phone must have certain firmware (more on that later). Both systems require the driver to connect a phone via USB, though there is some indication that Apple will allow wireless operation in the future. The software automatically handles the pairing process and once the driver hits the appropriate button onscreen, the system will transition into the Apple or Android interface.
Both systems will adapt to whatever control method the vehicle has, which means touchscreens for some cars and control knobs for others. The user initiates voice commands with a button on the steering wheel or on the screen itself.
At this point, contacts, text messages, music and recently searched destinations will display onscreen, each in its own menu. The data comes from the smartphone and is not stored in the vehicle.
Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are designed to coexist with the vehicle's built-in feature set, but you'll have to go in and out of the system to make everything work. For example, if you want to stream music from Spotify but also want to use the vehicle's navigation system, you must exit Android Auto or CarPlay by pressing the button with the automaker's logo. Then you can fire up the navigation system as the music runs in the background. Similarly, if you want to use Google or Apple maps for directions but also want to listen to FM radio, you would have to exit the CarPlay or Android Auto system, tune to the station and then go back into Android Auto or CarPlay.
Each system takes a different approach to displaying the data, but the goal is the same: reducing distraction by getting the driver to put down the phone and instead rely on voice functionality and the presentation of data on the vehicle's screen. Here's how each system handles this.
Google announced Android Auto in 2014, but had been working with automakers prior to the announcement. It sought to make a car-specific interface, rather than duplicate what was already on the phone.
"From the outset, we studied what drivers do in the car," says Andrew Brenner, product manager for Android Auto. "We redesigned and refined the Android user interface to adapt to the car."
The Android Auto home screen features Google Now cards that will show such things as the local weather, reminders of upcoming meetings, directions to a recently searched address or the name of a song that's currently playing.
The bottom of the screen has a row of buttons for the primary functions: maps, phone, home screen, music and car applications. These buttons display in all modes.
Brenner says the Android Auto team modified the screen layout to make it more user-friendly when driving.
"Touch targets are big, information is glanceable and we simplified apps and tasks to minimize distraction," Brenner says.
A microphone icon on the top right of every screen brings up the voice command feature. Google's voice system has the ability to make contextual searches. In other words, it remembers the last question you asked it. For example, a Google rep at the Los Angeles auto show asked, "What's the weather in San Diego right now?" The next question was, "What time does the zoo close? The system remembered that it had been asked about San Diego and displayed the hours for the San Diego Zoo. The Google rep then followed up with, "How do I get there?" and the system brought up directions to the zoo.
Messaging on Android Auto is done entirely by voice. An incoming text will be shown as a notification and will be read aloud, rather than displayed on screen. Replies are by voice as well. Android Auto will support third-party messaging services like WhatsApp or textPlus.
Music on Android Auto will play from the phone or stream from the Google play store, and the system supports third-party apps like NPR One, SoundCloud and Pocket Casts. The interface will remain consistent, regardless of the source of the music.
The car applications button is a work in progress at the time of this writing, but could potentially allow automakers to display information about the vehicle, help a person make service appointments or call for roadside assistance.
Android Auto will work on smartphones with Android 5.0 Lollipop and newer firmware.
Apple has been working with automakers since 2004, first with iPod integration, later with "Siri Eyes Free" and currently with Apple CarPlay, which the company introduced in 2013. It was called "iOS in Car" at that time.
The CarPlay home screen features many of the recognizable application tiles from the iPhone. Phone, music, maps, messages and podcasts are the major apps for CarPlay. Third-party apps such as iHeartRadio, MLB at Bat, Stitcher and more are expected to arrive later.
Most of these apps are audio-based, and therefore not as distracting. In other words, don't expect to see Facebook or Twitter on either system any time soon.
The CarPlay system primarily relies on voice commands, with Siri's assistance. When you start up the phone app, Siri will ask, "Who do you want to call?" You can dictate text messages to Siri and it will read incoming text messages aloud. To minimize distraction, the text won't appear onscreen.
Siri's voice search isn't limited to phone and navigation. Most other Siri commands, such as asking it to give you weather reports or sports scores, will work as well. But the information won't appear onscreen.
The maps app will suggest locations based on data in your e-mail, texts or recently searched locations. CarPlay will display turn-by-turn directions on the vehicle's infotainment screen.
CarPlay will work with iPhone 5 or newer phones. They must have iOS 7.1 or newer firmware.
Cars That Use the Systems
Automakers have been reluctant to give hard dates, but here's what we know so far: Hyundai says its Sonata will feature CarPlay and Android Auto before the end of 2015. Volkswagen also promised support in 2015, but didn't specify models. Ford's Sync 3, which will debut in 2016 models, will support both systems, but Ford also didn't give an exact date. Chevrolet had a vehicle running Apple CarPlay at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, but hasn't formally announced when the feature will reach showrooms.
"We may not be the first to market, but we want to be an early adopter," says Dan Kinney, user experience director at GM Global Connected Customer Experience. "We want to be aggressive with it, across the entire line, not just in one model." Employing the technology in all the vehicles of GM's Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC brands is part of why the project takes so long, Kinney adds.
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