Shelly Palmer

Apple CarPlay, Android Auto: Sanity Check

Apple CarPlay lets your car display a familiar, iOS-like interface. So too with Android Auto and its Google Now-ish display. But your new car has a built-in set of similar features that are ergonomically and technologically integrated. Should you plug your smartphone into the Apple CarPlay or Android Auto USB port and connect it to your car’s infotainment system, or just car-mount your smartphone, plug it into a charger and use it separately?

I recently picked up my new car, which features a very high-tech, dual-screen multimedia interface. I was forced to purchase the top-of-the-line “navigation system” in order to get the factory-installed sound system I wanted. (I’ll save my comments about that bitter pill for another column.) So, against my will, I am now the proud driver of a 2017 automobile with every bell and whistle the automaker sells.

Aside from some incredible semiautonomous driving features, the car has a natural language processing interface that lets you control a long list of features. It has a pretty impressive navigation system integrated with Google Earth that offers real-time traffic and weather and has full search, points of interest, a gas station finder, a national monument locater, and a way to store favorite destinations. It has a Bluetooth phone interface with visibility into your contacts, favorites, media, and more. It also has a multimedia entertainment/Internet package that includes Sirius XM, AM/FM radio, SD card readers, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, aux inputs, an AT&T 6GB/month LTE data package, and two USB ports: one that just charges your device and one for Apple CarPlay. It also has a dedicated app (although it is not very good) that can unlock the car, find the car, geofence the car, alert you if the car goes over the speed limit, and enable you to send navigation information to the car.

Sounds Great, Right?

It sounds great because it is great. It’s the best and latest version of everything this particular automaker knows how to include in the vehicle. But …

My iPhone 6s has every entertainment and navigation feature mentioned above and much, much more. When combined with Apple CarPlay, which you get to by plugging your iPhone into the CarPlay-enabled USB port, it is more than competitive with the car’s built-in navigation and entertainment tools. And, most important, it will be continuously improved over the life of my car. The car’s internal system is what it is; it’s built-in and is unlikely to improve.

Apple CarPlay does not put your iPhone interface up on the car’s display screen. It puts familiar iOS icons on the display in a manner that gives you easy access to Apple maps, messages, music and your iPhone. The phone integration is exceptional. Your favorites, contacts, recent calls and voicemail are just a knob twist away. And while CarPlay integrates only a few entertainment apps – Spotify, iHeartRadio, NPR, At Bat, a podcast player and some others – its future is clear. You are only a software update (iOS 10) away from “a little piece of heaven.” CarPlay gives you access to Siri and has a very nice speech-to-text system for safe messaging while driving.

If I plugged my Samsung Galaxy s7 into an Android Auto–compatible car, I would have access to similar features, plus Google Now and Google Maps. If you’re an Android person, it’s as useful as CarPlay – actually more useful when you consider the quality of both Google Now and Google Maps. Wait until Google adds Waze to Android Auto – you will shop for a car based on its Googleyness.

Sanity Check

Which brings me to a harsh, cold, horrible, unfortunate, evil reality. Even with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, I still need to car-mount my smartphone.

Back to Apple CarPlay: like many people who need to get from place to place, I am not fond of Apple Maps. I love Google Maps and I truly love Waze. I use Waze every time I get in any car (not just my own). If my iPhone is plugged into CarPlay, I can use Waze, but I can’t see it through the car’s infotainment display; I have to put my iPhone on a car-mount to see the map and visual reference cues, enter or confirm hazards and use other functions.

Did the car manufacturer give me a convenient place to mount my smartphone? Of course not. Do I want to stick my iPhone into the air vent and block the air conditioning, or do I want to stick it to my windshield and block my view? Neither option makes any sense.

Yep, I’m Still Insane

I need to car-mount my iPhone to use Waze and other non-CarPlay-compatible, non-built-in apps. So if I still need to car-mount my iPhone, do I really need to plug it into the CarPlay port? Why not just connect the phone via Bluetooth (to access the car’s built-in speaker phone, assuming that the iPhone’s speaker phone option isn’t loud enough) or Wi-Fi (for audio) and use my apps on the phone?

Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, Google, Apple and the auto manufacturers will get this worked out. Until then, I’ll be driving around with an air vent iPhone mount and a cable running down the dashboard, tucked under the floor mat, up the center console and into one of the USB ports. Which one? I’ll keep plugging it into the one I always plug it into and hope for a different result – as you know, that’s the definition of insanity.