Technology review: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto

by Peter Griffin / 07 June, 2016
To the mag wheels, fluffy dice and loud exhaust on your automotive wish list, add CarPlay and Auto.
Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto, below, bring smartphone capabilities to your car. Photo/Getty Images
Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto, below, bring smartphone capabilities to your car. Photo/Getty Images

I’ve been a car owner for more than 20 years but have never had one with an in-car display that doubles as entertainment system and satnav.

Not that I’ve ever wanted one – most are terrible. Now Apple and Google are attempting to make in-car displays useful by giving them the best features of your smartphone.

Car makers such as Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan and Audi are installing Apple CarPlay and/or Android Auto in new models.

Simply plug in your smartphone using a USB cable and messaging, calling, navigation and third-party audio apps such as Spotify and Apple Music are mirrored on the car’s screen.

It sounds like a dangerous distraction. But app features are limited to those unlikely to divert your attention from the road ahead.

Voice commands and steering-wheel controls mean you should be able to navigate the systems without glancing down or taking your hands off the wheel. That’s the theory, anyway.

The reality is a bit different as I found on a road trip through the backblocks of Wainuiomata in a new Holden Captiva with both CarPlay and Android Auto capability.

The systems are fairly similar, but they diverge on presentation. Apple’s is literally iOS in the car, with several of the iPhone’s big icons replicated. Android is extensively reformatted with a tabbed menu system that lets you navigate the main features.

The highlight of both is the satnav ­integration, which takes Apple Maps or Google Maps and displays them on the car’s screen complete with turn-by-turn spoken directions and traffic updates.

Android Auto.
Android Auto.

It’s game over for Garmin and Navman, which sell after-market devices to stick to your windscreen. Now your car screen-connected phone does the work for you, using the phone’s mobile data connection to get full navigation functionality.

Annoyingly, only Apple Maps will display from the iPhone and Android smartphones will only show Google Maps, a protectionist move on the part of the tech titans.

Most of us retrace the same routes day after day, so satnav may not get much use. The audio functions then take centre stage. Your Apple Music collection is available here, as is your Google Play music library.

Both systems also streamed my Spotify playlists. You can skip and pause tracks and shuffle through playlists, but anything complicated such as searching for a new artist will require you to pick up your handset – after pulling over of course.

It’s also possible to access audio apps such as the brilliant NPR One – which aggregates some of the best US podcasts – Apple’s iTunes podcasts and audio book app Audible, although Audible didn’t work for me on Android Auto.

Attempting to communicate via CarPlay and Auto had its frustrations. I hate talking on the phone while driving and it’s illegal to do so unless using speaker phone or a hands-free kit.

Both systems allow you to quickly bring up the phone dialler on the in-car screen, scroll through contacts and make a call with relative ease. For messaging, however, you’ll need to make friends with Siri or Google Now, the respective Apple and Google automated assistants.

“Hey Siri!” I called out while driving towards the windswept coast. What followed was a series of misunderstandings and moments of unexpected clarity as I tried to initiate calls, send text messages and call up songs using voice ­commands. Don’t attempt this on gravel roads is my advice.

These are the early days of the marriage between smartphones and in-car consoles, and it is still a slightly awkward union. The key is to keep things simple and make sure your apps and audio are loaded and ready before you hit the road.

These systems are now standard with many new cars and are an improvement on the bland in-car interfaces manufacturers offered in the past. You can’t really lose.

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