Earlier this week, Google showed off Android Auto, a dashboard navigation and entertainment system powered by an Android smartphone. It's almost identical in concept to competing designs from Apple and Microsoft. For perhaps the first time, these companies have a unified vision for the future of in-car electronics. And that's the best news car buyers have heard in years.
To understand what's right with these new designs, we first have to study what's wrong with the current trends in in-car entertainment. It all comes down to two problems: lack of standardization, and obsolescence.
For the most part, a car's dashboard electronics are designed and built by the car manufacturer. This tradition was acceptable when the most complicated device in the car was a radio or tape deck. But today, each of the several dozen car brands in the North American market has its own design philosophy for things like GPS and entertainment systems. And none of them is particularly good at it.
The field isn't just fragmented, it's positively shattered: hop out of an Audi and into a Cadillac, and you'll face a completely foreign operating interface for basic functions like climate control, navigation, and stereo. Stumbling through unfamiliar sub-menus is a pain standing still; at 70 MPH, it's a safety hazard.
Then there's the technology's lifespan. The average car takes three to five years to go from concept to production, and a particular model could stay on the market for several years after that with only minor updates. The current Jeep Wrangler, for instance, has been on sale since 2007 with only minor changes. And don't forget, the average car on the road in the U.S. is over 11 years old.
That's fine—or at least, tolerable—for engines and suspensions. But for your car's more advanced electronics systems, it's a lifetime. In a four-year-old car, once-cutting-edge GPS and stereo systems end up looking hopelessly outdated while you're still making payments. Swapping in updated equipment is almost always too complicated or expensive to be worthwhile. Stuck with a nav system that was programmed before your cul-de-sac existed? Your only real option is to trade for a 2014 model. But don't get too cozy: the 2015s are just around the corner.
Compare car tech to the smartphone ecosystem: even the most restrictive carrier contracts encourage you to upgrade every two years, and frequent software updates keep your pocket stuffed with the latest capabilities. Unless you're getting into the fringe, your device most likely runs one of three standard operating systems, and while hardware manufacturers like to put their own spin on things, for the most part an Android is an Android and a Windows Phone is a Windows Phone.
So it seems logical to use the muscular, up-to-date, standardized device in your pocket or purse to power the functions you want on your dashboard: navigation, music, and communication. As of this week, three major players (and one outsider that preceded them all) offer slightly different variations on this theme.
Android Auto is the newcomer. Unveiled Wednesday, it brings Google's voice-activated commands and context awareness to a pared-down setup optimized for minimal driver distraction. We got to play around with Android Auto at its debut, and frankly, it could be a lifesaver.
Most smartphone-owning drivers are guilty of furtively trying to use their phones while driving, a dangerously distracting habit. Android Auto looks to solve that problem by putting your smartphone's interface on the bigger, clearer screen in your dashboard, emphasizing voice control, and limiting you to driver-oriented apps when the car is in motion.
Once you plug your Android device into the car via USB (wireless linking is probably not far off, but not currently available), the in-dash screen takes control of the phone. A voice-activation button on the steering wheel summons your phone's attention, allowing you to ask for Google Maps directions or select music from your streaming apps or downloaded songs. It can even answer Google Now-type requests, like "what's the weather forecast tonight," and context-aware notifications like "remind me to get gas on my way home."
Reminders, text messages, phone calls, and navigation directions are all fed to you through your Android device's robot voice—though for now, notifications pop up as a card on the dashboard screen that you tap to summon the voice. It's all optimized for driving, with minimal on-screen text and maximal voice control ensuring that you're never tempted to focus on the dashboard screen (or your phone's even tinier display).
Your Android device already knows when you're near your home or office; it's already capable of reading a text message out loud and sending your voice-dictated reply. Bringing these tasks to your dashboard's touchscreen, summonable with the tap of a voice command button, is a no-brainer, and Android Auto's implementation shows how simple and driver-friendly a smartphone-powered dashboard could be.
Google's offering is strikingly similar to Apple's CarPlay, which uses the same trick of throwing your iPhone's app icons and Siri button onto your dashboard and steering wheel, respectively. Here, it's Apple Maps for navigation, iTunes for music, and iMessage for communications—all summoned by Siri. It'll look innately familiar to anyone who's operated an iDevice.
There are key differences, though: as far as we've been able to see, CarPlay doesn't offer the contextual awareness that makes Google's in-car offering so intriguing. Hypothetically, that means CarPlay might not be able to do things like suggest a less-congested route when it senses you're driving to work. Android's system is open to developers building car-centric versions of their apps (think Spotify for the car), while Apple's app ecosystem is still pretty closed off. And then there's the fact that Apple's navigation app hasn't been quite as reliable as Google Maps.
But in all other respects—namely, one-tap or voice-only operation for navigation, music selection, and sending and receiving calls and texts—CarPlay and Android Auto are nearly identical. It's worth pointing out that Apple was the first to show this type of interface in action, demonstrating CarPlay back in March of this year. Microsoft and Google both announced their offerings in short order, indicating that all three companies have had cars on the mind.
Even Microsoft is eyeing the dashboard, having shown an in-car concept that broadcasts a Windows Phone's UI on a car's touchscreen. With big, easy-to-summon icons and a button for voice control, it would pretty much offer the same features as CarPlay and Android Auto, wrapped in decor familiar to any Windows Phone user.
In a way, Microsoft's been at this game the longest: Ford, Kia, BMW, Nissan and Fiat have all called on the company at various times to develop brand-specific digital dashboard interfaces. But the Microsoft CE-powered Ford Sync system wouldn't look at all familiar to a Nissan driver; each brand got its own customized setup.
The still-conceptual Microsoft in the Car setup might be the closest yet to the platonic ideal of in-car tech: unlike Google and Apple's offerings, Microsoft in the Car is built around MirrorLink, an OS-agnostic, non-proprietary automotive integration system that uses universal technologies like Bluetooth and Universal Plug and Play (UPnP). Unfettered by Apple- or Android-specific programming, MirrorLink promises seamless integration and on-dash access to an approved list of apps on your smartphone, no matter the brand or operating system.
That would really be the dream setup: a universal system that holds hands with whatever glowing rectangle you happened to plug in. A setup that wraps you car's vital controls in the OS you've been using ten to 4,000 times a day, the one your thumbs (and increasingly, your voice) instinctively know how to navigate. A bring-your-own data briefcase that makes for seamless transitions whether you're driving a rental, borrowing a friend's pickup truck, or trading in your lease.
Forget about obsolescence. In this semi-realistic fantasy world, you could hang on to your car for decades, and as long as you upgraded your smartphone with the frequency of most smartphone users, you'd always have up-to-date digital capabilities. It'd be a great day for people who swap phones regularly, but hang onto their cars—or degenerates like me who buy $150 automotive zombies out of people's backyards.
The biggest hurdle to that future fantasy is the same problem that faces nearly every "smart" device: platform lock-in. When Apple announced CarPlay earlier this year, it named 16 carmakers that would eventually support the platform. Yesterday, Google showed 28 brands that have pledged allegiance to Android. Only nine automakers show up on both lists. You see the problem here.
Imagine if you had your heart set on the new-for-2o16 Snubnose Mangler, but it didn't support your preferred smartphone. It'd be infuriatingly dumb to have to buy a new smartphone just to have it sync with the very expensive car you just committed to, or to skip the car you really want because you just renewed your phone contract and can't stomach the idea of switching devices.
Ideally, by the time smartphone-powered in-car tech hits the streets, the major manufacturers will offer universal OS support in every vehicle. MirrorLink (and thus, Microsoft) hopes to encourage that with the Connected Car Consortium, an agreed set of standards that would provide for universal support. But that's no guarantee.
When it comes to consumer tech, reality rarely even approaches the ideal. But with Android Auto, CarPlay, and Microsoft in the Car, we get a glimpse at a potential future where in-car tech isn't already obsolete on the showroom floor. Hopefully, consumer demand (and maybe a mobile tech miracle) will bring us something even greater: universal smartphone support in every new car.
Hey, we can dream, right?
Lead illustration by Michael Hession