Android Auto and Apple CarPlay - What Do They Do, and Are They for You?

Apple CarPlay 6 photos
Photo: Honda
Android Auto presentation image (holding phone is not required for use)Apple's first picture of the CarPlay interfaceApple CarPlay interfaceGoogle Maps in car using Android AutoParrot-RNB6-Android-Auto-head-unit
Apple and Google started an infotainment revolution a few years ago when carmakers began introducing enhanced smartphone compatibility in their models.
As some of you already know and even use, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are two systems installed in the multimedia interfaces of modern cars, which allow the user to mirror their smartphone on the vehicle’s display. Nothing spectacular, right?

Well, it turns out that it is, because this feature lets the user navigate the phone’s menu using the controls built into the steering wheel. In cars with voice control interfaces, a push of the voice control button allows the user to access the digital assistant of the smartphone without touching the phone itself.

Features like these enable users to enjoy enhanced navigation services and their phones at the same time, in a way that was not possible through the classic interfaces of conventional multimedia units in modern cars.

Photo: Parrot
Thankfully, users of recent-model-year vehicles can get a retrofit upgrade to Android Auto/Apple CarPlay, but this is limited to only a few brands and models, at least for the time being.

However, you can buy a new head unit with support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and these units come from reputable manufacturers of aftermarket devices, so there is no guessing if they will work on your vehicle. Look for brands like JBL, JVC, Pioneer, and Kenwood for aftermarket support of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay in your vehicle.

Instead of making a list of cars that come with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay from the factory, or finding out which aftermarket suppliers provide solutions for retrofit of head units with this feature, we want to take a look at what the two competing systems provide to their users.

The main benefit of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay

Android Auto presentation image \(holding phone is not required for use\)
Photo: Chevrolet
The first thing that these systems do is allow you to use the functions of your smartphone while driving without the need to look at its screen or to hold the phone. The entire interface of the usually handheld device is mirrored on the screen of your vehicle.

Since holding your phone while driving is dangerous because it takes up one of your hands, using it becomes even more risky, as it requires more attention from you and the diversion of your eyes. Therefore, eliminating this part of the interface while helping the user to navigate using Google Maps/Apple Maps or whatever navigation application is preferred (and accepted by the software) is better.

Another benefit of these systems is that apps can receive over-the-air updates for enhanced performance, and they also come with superior graphics when compared to the user interfaces of modern vehicles. But the update part is, by far, the best thing about these two systems, besides the fact that they work to eliminate a severe risk factor from the roads - people looking at their phones while driving.

What use is a phone you cannot touch while driving?

Google Maps in car using Android Auto
First of all, it is more useful than one that you have to hold. Since you have voice controls activated, you can operate the navigation screen without looking at your phone. You can search for places on Google and then use Maps to take you to the precise location.

Google’s navigation has proved superior to the systems we experimented with in modern cars, especially when going to a specific address, like an exact street number.

Secondly, the system eliminates the need for a hands-free headset, as this function is already integrated into the vehicle and the phone is already paired to the car. So there is no excuse to use your smartphone while driving if you have this technical solution.

Users can play music straight from their phones, use third-party music apps, audiobooks, and access messaging in a safe manner. Naturally, there are some restrictions, so you cannot play Candy Crush or whatever game you obsessively try to master while you are driving. Because that would ruin the point of the interface.

Restrictions and limitations of Apple CarPlay and AndroidAuto

Apple's first picture of the CarPlay interface
Photo: Apple
First of all, Apple CarPlay is only available for iPhones, and not for iPads. Secondly, the iPhone must have a Lightning connector, so it is only available for iPhone5 users and up. You must also have the latest software on it for optimal usage, but this applies to Android Auto as well.

You have to use a certified cable to connect the iPhone to the car to enable Apple CarPlay. This restriction does have a point, though - using your phone for navigation purposes and with Wi-Fi on takes a big bite of battery life, but if it is connected to the vehicle’s USB port, it can be charged, and you avoid running out of juice during your trip. We must note that wireless Apple CarPlay is possible and will be unveiled shortly. Until then, an Apple-Certified cable is required to use the system.

In the Android Auto playground, you need to have a phone that runs a version of Android, which supports the interface, so something over Android 5.0 Lollipop or newer. However, since carriers and phone makers can customize ROMs for Android smartphones, the feature might not be available everywhere.

Android Auto works best through a USB connection, as this provides no loss in audio quality. Meanwhile, phone calls are handled through Bluetooth. A USB cable is also required for maximum performance, but we expect this necessity to disappear shortly.

Only apps allowed by Apple are available for use with CarPlay. This statement is also valid for Google’s Android Auto. It is simply too dangerous to allow an untrusted app get onto the screen of the multimedia interface of a vehicle. There is no word on availability of these features for rooted Android phones or Jailbroken iPhones, but these are exceptions, not the norm so that we will stick to those interfaces reserved for regular users.

The most significant restriction of these two systems is that you cannot use your phone for anything else while it is connected to the car through Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.

So if your passenger’s phone has a dead battery and they need to search something on Google, browse the Web, or whatever activity you trust them to do on your phone, anything displayed on the car’s multimedia screen will go blank.

From personal experience, it is tricky to stream music and use navigation services at the same time from the very first use. You can do both, but things get difficult once you try to switch songs or playlists while navigating through an area in which you need visual directions from the GPS.

Differences between Apple CarPlay and Android Auto

Apple CarPlay interface
Photo: Apple
The two competing systems work in a similar way and provide almost the same features. However, there are a few differences. First of all, Google’s Android Auto provides a whole new interface, inspired by Google Now.

This UI is much cleaner than the GUI of Android phones, and it even comes with a few predictive functions. The system thinks whether you want to go home or to the office depending on the hour you get in your car. It will not do this first hand, as it must track your movements for a while and then predict where you might want to go.

The described feature also works through reading your e-mails in Gmail and your calendar for appointments. The entire thing is excellent if you like integration, but scary if you think you still have any privacy with a smartphone.

Apple’s CarPlay does not let drivers use Google Maps for navigation by default, as the Cupertino giant has its phones running Apple Maps as standard. Furthermore, Apple’s interface is not as flashy as Google’s, but this might be a plus for iPhone users.

Naturally, these two competing systems do not work with Windows Phones or other operating systems. So you will need a compatible phone to operate it. Since you need an active data connection for GPS routing, you will require a generous data plan on your phone.

If you are driving abroad and want to use Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, beware of roaming fees, as these might be extremely expensive. After all, navigation does take a bite out of your data plan, and doing this abroad on a long route could make your trip expensive when your cellular bill is due.
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About the author: Sebastian Toma
Sebastian Toma profile photo

Sebastian's love for cars began at a young age. Little did he know that a career would emerge from this passion (and that it would not, sadly, involve being a professional racecar driver). In over fourteen years, he got behind the wheel of several hundred vehicles and in the offices of the most important car publications in his homeland.
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