In-car entertainment has evolved immeasurably over the decades.
In the 1980s, buyers of a new car were lucky to get a radio – and only high-end models got stereo sound. Similarly, in the 1990s, a CD player represented the height of sophistication.
Millennials were amazed by the concept of Bluetooth phone calls emerging from car speakers, while the 2010s saw a wave of pioneering technologies including voice control.
As we start a new decade, our cars are set to undergo unprecedented change. Buttons and dials are giving way to haptic touchscreens, while many cars now act as 4G WiFi hotspots.
Manufacturers are adding in proprietary software systems which support telephone services, multimedia files and suchlike.
However, there is still little connection between smartphones and cars, other than apps which allow the owners of (mainly electric) vehicles to remotely start and warm/cool their cars.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are intended to bridge the divide, bringing many of the features familiar to smartphone users onto our roads.
But how do these apps work? And are they the future, or simply a stopgap?
The car’s the star
In essence, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto both perform the same basic function of mirroring smartphone content onto a vehicle’s dashboard display screen.
Google Maps is a great example, displaying high-resolution full-colour satellite imagery embellished with real-time traffic overlays.
Of course, the data downloads needed to support satellite navigation services quickly become expensive on data-limited phone contracts.
Even so, it’s a great feature if your car doesn’t already have navigation fitted as standard.
For safety reasons, Auto and CarPlay are designed around voice control – Google Assistant and Siri respectively – rather than being operated via conventional touchscreen operation.
(That’s a good job, since smartphones generally need to be physically plugged into a USB socket before these apps launch – and those sockets are often located in inaccessible places.)
Both apps can multitask – momentarily lowering music volumes to announce navigation instructions, for instance.
Both connect quickly, both have similar layouts, and both have earned the praise of platform devotees without doing enough to persuade anyone to switch operating systems.
What are their limitations?
In truth, there are many drawbacks to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Firstly, your phone has to be physically plugged into a USB cable every time you get into the vehicle. That quickly becomes tiresome, especially if the socket is in the glovebox.
Secondly, the overwhelming majority of Android and iOS apps aren’t compatible. Mirroring is really only suitable for things like podcasts, and text messages, which are fairly passé now.
Although it’s possible to download apps for WhatsApp, Spotify and Amazon Music, some apps are notoriously glitchy, while Apple users have relatively few apps to choose from.
And since most cars have supported Bluetooth calling since the early Noughties, being able to make phone calls through these apps isn’t going to impress anyone.
Worse, CarPlay and Auto aren’t compatible with each other. And some vehicle manufacturers historically only installed one platform into their cars.
Until now, BMW have been sold with CarPlay as standard but not even an option for Android Auto, though this will finally be rectified in cars sold after July.
So is this technology the future?
Almost certainly not.
Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are temporary fixes, designed to perform basic hands-free functions until we reach a seamlessly connected future.
Ten years from now, it should be possible to move calls, media files and other services effortlessly from one place to another without cables, apps or compatibility issues.
In many respects, this will mirror the progress with streaming media itself, where you can start watching a programme on one device and resume on another machine elsewhere.
For now, Auto and CarPlay are too clunky and limited to offer much long-term appeal. In many cars, they simply replicate functions which are already pre-installed.
However, they are valuable for keeping in touch on the move if your car doesn’t already have a sophisticated infotainment system or satellite navigation.