Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are about to get really real

Commentary: The way you access your phone from your car is going to change things forever, and that's great.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
4 min read

OK, I'll be honest, some of the most exciting tech of 2017 doesn't sound all that exciting on the surface. But bear with me, because it's going to be big.

Ready? Smartphone integration in cars -- specifically Android Auto and Apple CarPlay -- is finally past the tipping point of revolutionizing our in-car experience.

Hitting the road in all three 2017 Hyundai Ioniq models

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That means that instead of squinting at your phone and tapping when you should have your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel, more cars will be able to access the stuff inside your personal Android phone or iPhone from the dashboard. For example, you can easily navigate to an address in your contacts list, and play music with your voice. You won't be able to text with your hands, or -- perish the thought -- play games while you drive.

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This amounts to a more convenient, safer, distraction-free way for drivers to use their phones.

Study after study shows that using your phone while behind the wheel is at least as dangerous as drunk driving, and maybe even more so. Even reading a text message while you drive takes your eyes off the road for an average of 5 seconds, according to federal findings. That's long enough to get into a crash.

So far, roughly 30 manufacturers have signed on to support Apple CarPlay and more than 50 are backing Android Auto on cars coming out this year. (Many manufacturers already support both, a boon for families with both Android and iPhone users.)

After more than a decade of the automotive industry working toward this moment, the swell of support finally puts us at a point where compatibility will become the norm. It will change expectations about how you access content when you drive, and help make driving safer for everyone.

More good things to come, like better apps


Waze on Android Auto is happening... eventually.

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More cars on the road running Android Auto and Apple CarPlay means we'll inevitably see improvements for both platforms as Apple and Google make updates for a larger base of users.

Both platforms are more than functional at this point, but still exceedingly basic. They don't allow for even the most rudimentary customization, like changing colors or wallpaper. You know, the sort of thing that Android and iOS have offered since the very beginning. I think that will change as more semi-satisfied users speak up.

Google is starting to make some changes, too. It recently released a raft of updates to Android Auto, including tweaks that allow you to use the service even if you don't have a compatible car. Apple, for the moment, is staying mum about updates to CarPlay, but surely has some enhancements in the cards. (If we get lucky, we could hear more as soon as Apple's annual WWDC event next month.)

More cars and better features will bring more users to the platform, and with that will come more apps that work from a tap on your car's head unit screen. Many of my favorites are already on Android Auto, like Spotify for music and BeyondPod for podcasts -- I've already signed in from my phone, so I won't need to sign in again or set my favorites.

And, since I use Hangouts for all my messaging, I can still keep in touch while driving by using my voice, like sending a message to my wife that I'm running late. All I need to do is hit the voice button on the steering wheel, dictate my message, and away it goes. Easy.

Still, there are plenty of notable missing apps, perhaps the biggest being Waze. That changes this year too, with an Android Auto-compatible flavor of Waze dropping soon. No word on when or if Google's crowd-sourced navigation/traffic app will be coming to CarPlay, but given how much Apple has that platform bolted down to outsiders, don't hold your breath.

DIY CarPlay or Android Auto


The Pioneer NEX series of receivers are compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

If you want to get onboard with the seamless merging of phone and car, but aren't ready to buy a new ride, you could buy a compatible aftermarket head unit from companies such as Pioneer.

They're not new, but there are more choices than ever before, and they're cheaper than ever before, too. In the US, $400 will get you in the game; that's half the cost compared to when they were first released. It's not pocket change, but it's a heckuva lot cheaper than buying a new car.

Either way you go, it's time to buckle in. More cars on the road with CarPlay and Android Auto mean better services, more apps and, ultimately, a lot fewer distracted drivers trying to use their phones while driving.

That is something to be excited about indeed.