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How phone tech will make your car smarter in 2022

Smartphone distraction is blight on the driving experience, but new features and innovation are the hope at the bottom of this technological Pandora's box.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow
This story is part of The Year Ahead, CNET's look at how the world will continue to evolve starting in 2022 and beyond.

For as long as there have been smartphones, people have been using them while driving. Usually, it's to the detriment of driver attentiveness, but recent advancements in phone integration, app mirroring and vehicle connectivity are the hope at the bottom of this Pandora's box. 

Today, phone mirroring technologies like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay work to help to reduce driver distraction, curating and streamlining our interactions with media and maps. Tomorrow, your phone may bring even more connectivity on the road, hopefully balancing safety as capability grows. And one day, your phone may even replace your keys as the primary way you access (and share access) to your wheels.

The state of Android Auto, Apple CarPlay

Apple CarPlay and Google's Android Auto smartphone integration and app mirroring technologies have already seen a massive spike in adoption since their introductions in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and can now be commonly found on the standard features list for most models from major automakers. In fact, it's more noteworthy today when a new model doesn't support one or both of the standards. Smartphone mirroring tech has gotten so good and so cheap, that we're even seeing more cars offering Android Auto or Apple CarPlay as the only path to navigation, eschewing embedded nav to keep costs down on entry-level models.

Ironically, the exceptions to the Android/Apple love-fest have been the newest kids on the block. From Tesla to Rivian to Lucid, none of the new EV startups that have been so disruptive in the automotive industry currently support Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. The reasons given usually include a desire to focus on delivering more polished, deeply integrated and connected onboard infotainment first and a perceived lack of interest from prospective early adopters. In these companies' defense, onboard software often has access to data that mirrored apps lack, like real time battery status that can be taken into account when planning a navigation route -- or games that you probably shouldn't play while driving -- but the Mercedes-Benz EQS, Ford Mach-E and Hyundai Ioniq 5 offer all of that alongside the option for smartphone mirroring. That said, both Rivian and Lucid have stated that they are open to adding Android and Apple's smartphone tech in future over-the-air updates if their customers ask loudly enough.

rivian-r1t-launch-edition-2022-735736

Freshman EV startups like Rivian and Lucid have been slow to adopt Apple and Google's smartphone tech.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay have grown significantly over the years adding dozens of apps to their supported catalogs, broadening the scope of their functionality and allowing customers more latitude to customize their experience. In the coming year, both technologies should continue to evolve adding new features, abilities and quality of life improvements. 

Android Auto is focusing on streamlining the pairing process with a new feature called Fast Pairing, which will allow users to wirelessly connect their phone to a car with a single tap The feature is slated to debut on new BMW vehicles, including the new iX EV, and other makes in the near future. Google is also working to better integrate Android Auto with other vehicle systems and beyond just the center screen, for example, surfacing turn-by-turn directions in the digital instrument cluster of upcoming vehicles. The in-car interface will also benefit as the Google Assistant voice search function grows, gaining new features and interface tweaks that will, hopefully, make interacting with messaging apps smoother. 

After going back and forth on Android Auto on the phone, Google seems to have finally settled on Google Assistant Driving mode as its preferred a low-distraction interface for accessing navigation and media in cars that don't support Android Auto in the dashboard.

Google's ambitions for car tech also extend beyond the phone; Android Automotive OS -- which we've seen on the Polestar 2 -- is a version of Android that lives in the car's dashboard powering navigation, media, climate controls, instrumentation and more. Android Automotive is separate and distinct from Android Auto as it doesn't rely on a phone to function, but the two technologies play nicely together, and increased adoption of Google's in-dash OS could allow for deeper, more intuitive connectivity with phones apps in the future.

Android Auto (pictured) and Apple CarPlay have become so ubiquitous that's it's more noteworthy when they aren't included as standard.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Apple has done a better job delivering the new features that it's promised with each update to iOS -- versus Google with its constant delays, slow rollouts and occasional disappearance of promised features -- with most of the new CarPlay features announced earlier this year rolling out as part of the iOS 15 beta. There are new themes and wallpapers to choose from, a new Driving Focus mode that can reduce notifications while CarPlay is active or driving is detected and improvements to Apple Maps and messaging via Siri voice assistant.

Apple also keeps its cards closer to the vest, so CarPlay's upgrade path is a bit less clear. However, the rumored project "IronHeart" could see Apple growing its influence over the vehicle, granting CarPlay control over the car's radio, climate control, seat settings and other infotainment settings. Of course, this is just a rumor that Apple hasn't commented on and such control would need to be first granted by automakers, but not having to switch back and forth between CarPlay and OEM software to adjust one's temperature sure does sound promising.

2022 Hyundai Elantra N

With the coming of iOS 15, CarPlay gains improved Apple Maps and new customizable wallpapers.

Hyundai

Where we're going, we don't need keys

One of the most promising applications of smartphone technology in the automotive space is the rise of the phone as an alternative to keys. 

This isn't a new technology; Hyundai showcased Near-Field Communication-based phone unlocking technology way back in 2012 with Audi adding the tech to a production car, its flagship A8 sedan, in 2018. However, the short range of NFC (and Apple's initial hesitance to adopt the tech) offered almost no advantage over a conventional key fob, so automakers like Hyundai and Ford moved to Bluetooth for secure authentication, unlocking and starting their cars.

Android Digital Car Key

Both Google and Apple have announced Digital Car Key standards starting with BMW. Expect to see more compatible makes over the next year.

Google

Replacing your car keys with your phone even part of the time, comes with a host of advantages beyond having one less thing in your pocket or purse. Automakers tout the ability to use more complex encryption technology to boost security. 

A digital car key can also be transferred more easily than a physical key and offers more granular control. You could, for example, send full driving access to a family member who needs to run errands for a day or only grant lock/unlock access to a friend who just needs to grab something from the cabin or trunk. When they're done, those rights can be automatically revoked -- no need to track people down and retrieve your key.

Recently, both Google and Apple have announced their own digital car key standards built into Android and iOS at an OS level, which promise to increase security and while also streamlining authentication. Perhaps next year, your friends or family members may not have to download a whole separate OEM app just to borrow your digital car keys for an afternoon. And because each digital car key is unique, they could theoretically be tied to a user profile that travels from vehicle to vehicle, for example, bringing the preferences set on your sedan with you when your sibling digitally loans you their minivan of the same make for the weekend.

The tech cat's out of the bag

The power of the phone as the ultimate on-the-go technology makes it an almost too-perfect match for the automobile, the tech that enables us to be the most on the go. They are, however, a problematic pair. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that there were 3,142 fatalities and 424,000 people injured due to motor vehicle crashes in the US involving distracted drivers in 2019.

Sadly, the technological cat is out of the bag; folks aren't going to give up their phones just because it's a good idea. However, a smarter application of AI voice assistant tech and app-mirroring interfaces that curate notifications and remove distractions can make the phone, ironically, one of the most promising ways to lure drivers away from using high-distraction apps on the road and incentivize safer motoring, both for the cutting-edge cars of tomorrow or the wheels you own today.