Not so long ago, consumers had very low expectations for their car’s infotainment systems. Today, tech giants like Apple and Google are engaged in a battle to control the in-car experience, by linking with your smartphone to power navigation, communications, music, and more.
It’s fair to say that much of the innovation is happening in Silicon Valley as auto makers flock to Android Auto, and Apple’s CarPlay for iPhone users. After years of being a fairly interesting side business, cars are now an obsession for Silicon Valley, with more than 200 people at Apple said to be working on electric vehicle technology, and Google developing autonomous vehicles which it believes could be on the roads in just five years.
In the next few months, car dealers in the US will be selling vehicles that can run Android Auto, CarPlay, or both.
Android Auto and CarPlay fighting for your car’s dash
Both systems do much more than simply pairing via Bluetooth for playing music or hands-free calling – they essentially take over complete control of the car’s centre screen and some of the surrounding buttons.
According to John Maddox, assistant director of the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Centre. “[Consumers] expect to have coordination between their phone and their vehicle.”
Google says that Android Auto is about to debut in American’s cars after more than two years in development. An Android phone just plugs into the dash via USB and powers up on the console – but the phone’s display is disabled and can’t be used while driving.
CarPlay works in a similar fashion with icons for music, maps, calls, messaging and selective apps (Spotify, for instance is supported). Despite all these buttons and controls, both Google and Apple say the aim is to make driving safer and free of distractions that might cause an accident.
“We looked at what people do with their phones in the car, and it was scary,” said Andrew Brenner, the lead project manager of Google’s Android Auto team. “You want to say to them, ‘Yikes, no, don’t do that.’ ”
Minimising distractions while driving
Google has been very vocal about the need to minimise distractions for tasks that people frequently do while driving, even going so far as to build a driver-distraction lab to test different variations. For example, Android Auto doesn’t provide ‘back’ or ‘recents’ buttons, and Google Maps uses a bigger font and shows less detail to make it easier to read quickly.
“Things that we don’t show are just as important as what we do show,” said Brenner.
To this end, streaming video is not supported by Android Auto and the majority of social media notifications are blocked. Texts can only be sent using voice control, and on-screen apps are optimised for a quick glance.
“It’s these little glances at the screen that people do in a car,” he said. “We want something that’s very glanceable, that can be seen and done quickly.”
Giving consumers choice
When Google began its Android Auto project there were only a few car makers onboard, such as General Motors, Audi, Honda and Hyundai. That figure has now expanded to twenty-eight. Apple lists thirty manufacturers on its CarPlay website, but many will support both systems.
In the US, one of the most widespread adopters will be Ford, which plans to offer Android Auto and CarPlay, in addition to a newly revamped version of its own (highly criticised) Sync system. By the end of 2016, the three systems will be available on all Fords sold in the United States.
“We don’t want people to have to make a vehicle choice based on which mobile phone they have,” said Don Butler, Ford’s executive director for connected vehicles and services. “We want to accommodate all customers and their devices.”
For most car makers, their traditionally closed, proprietary infotainment systems were not always successful, quickly becoming outdated as hardware and software evolved. And in some cases, consumers even had to pay to update their mapping software – an alien concept to users of Google or Apple’s mapping apps.
Ford’s Butler said that smartphones and the ecosystem of apps surrounding them provided a new way forward. “The challenge with closed systems is you need to predict where the future is heading, or have enough robustness that it’s future proof, which of course is virtually impossible,” he said. “We think it’s better to put a broad platform for innovation in place.”
Auto makers have traditionally struggled to implement decent in-car voice recognition, while Google and Apple have been somewhat more successful. Voice has enormous potential to ensure drivers stay focused on the road, but it’s critical that these systems work flawlessly.
“Many of the systems out there now in cars, the voice interface is almost unusable,” said Mr. Maddox, the University of Michigan transportation expert. “It’s inaccurate, people get frustrated and they’ll just stop using it.”
Siri is used to control Apple’s CarPlay, and the company provides specifications to automakers to ensure a user’s voice can be easily understood while inside the car. Google has also taken steps to make sure that consumers can speak just as they would normally. For example, being able to say “Take me to Heathrow airport”, or “Go to Heathrow airport” or even just “Heathrow airport” – each system has to figure out that’s where you want to go, regardless how you say it.
Not all manufacturers are keen
Despite the advances made by Android Auto and CarPlay, not all of the automakers are quite so enthusiastic. Toyota for instance, says that it frequently talks with Google and Apple but doesn’t yet plan to adopt either system, at least in the US.
“We may all eventually wind up there”, said John Hanson, national manager of Toyota’s advanced technology communications, “but right now we prefer to use our in-house proprietary platforms for those kinds of functions”.
Fiat, which is considered to have one of the more superior in-car systems, has signed on to Android Auto and CarPlay, but a modicum of hesitance is evident.
“We’re confident that our systems deliver a good experience for our customers,” said Eric Mayne, a spokesman at Chrysler. “But we’re not standing still either.”
Thankfully the era of complicated, difficult to use in-car infotainment systems is about to come to and end. Car Play and Android Auto are both admirable efforts to make it easier to navigate, communicate and enjoy the in-car experience. With more car manufacturers coming onboard, it’s only a matter of time before the majority support one or other system, or are forced to up their game and improve their own proprietary systems.
With the car dash almost sewn up, Google and Apple will no doubt be devoting more time to develop connected, autonomous electric vehicles, and that’s the start of an even more intriguing and interesting battle.