In the World of In-Car Infotainment, Your Phone Reigns Supreme

Like it or not, your phone is now a part of who you are. At least, if you want to exist within the modern world. Of course, if you want to run off to some as-yet-untainted part of the woods and return to our collective hunter-gatherer roots, that’s cool too. I can’t fault you there. But unless you’re saying “good riddance” to society, you have to have a phone on you. So why is it so difficult for auto manufacturers to understand that solid phone connectivity is really all people need from their infotainment systems?
Lexus Apple Carplay 6 photos
Photo: Lexus
Mercedes HyperscreenMercedes HyperscreenBentley Apple CarplayBentley InfotainmentLexus Apple Carplay
The thought came to me on a road trip about two years ago, when I was range-testing the then-new Mercedes EQS with its famed Hyperscreen. It was, in a word, overwhelming. The screen is so large it almost obscures your view out the front, and the number of interfaces, settings, and buttons was truly too much. Maybe it’s time to turn the slider a little more towards “hunter-gatherer” and a little further from “Total Recall” and just admit that some nice, legible buttons and a machine to read your texts is the way to do infotainment.

People think in-car infotainment is too complex

In researching this piece, I found a survey done by Consumer Reports, indicating that people seem to share this sentiment, if only by a somewhat narrow margin. The document reflects that 73,000 surveyed people prefer using either Android Auto or Apple Carplay to their car’s onboard infotainment system. The numbers also skew heavily towards Carplay over Android Auto (AA), partly because of Carplay’s more unanimous presence in newer cars. In the last few years, I’d imagine that has balanced out some.

The survey was split into four categories: voice calls, navigation, voice-to-text, and audio (music, podcasts, etc.). In all four categories, buyers prefer either Carplay or Android Auto to whatever built-in interface their car may have.

Take the largest gulf - voice-to-text. Consumers were 65% satisfied with Carplay’s system, 55% satisfied with AA’s, and 58% satisfied with the built-in interface. The story is the same across the board, with either AA or the built-in interface falling in last.

Mercedes Hyperscreen
Photo: Mercedes-Benz

Phone integration democratized infotainment

Android Auto and Carplay leveled the infotainment playing field in the mid-2010s. It’s easy to see why. No matter what car you find yourself in - be it a $20,000 Toyota Corolla or a $200,000 Bentley Bentayga, the experience is largely the same. Both programs function the same way, integrating texts, calls, and music with familiar, legible icons that are always present on the main screen.

It also allowed some brands to use infotainment systems for longer. That Corolla’s infotainment system was woefully outdated by 2019, yet Android Auto and Carplay made it feel at least a little current. If you ask me, it also proved an important point: all anyone really needs is a way for their phone to integrate seamlessly with the car. Anything more is just noise.

Bentley Apple Carplay
Photo: Bentley

Should we be integrating our phones at all?

It’s time to bring safety into the equation. Is all this integration really a good idea? We’ve spent years telling kids in Driver’s Ed that distracted driving is a major cause for accidents. Yet infotainment systems have only become more involved (read: distracting) over the years. Does either Carplay or AA solve this? One can argue that it does to a degree. By democratizing the experience in a way that is familiar to everyone, people can more safely use the phones that they would use anyway while driving.

The previously mentioned survey also indicated that buyers were overall happier with their car’s infotainment when phone mirroring software was in use. Toyota’s old Entune system was widely despised, and buyers reported a 12% increase in satisfaction when using Carplay or AA. At Nissan and Infiniti, the story is largely the same. Mazda owners tell an even more positive story, reporting that Carplay made them happier with the interface, though Android Auto was a wash.

Part of this can be attributed to the maps services each system offers, as pointed out by the survey. Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps all offer real-time traffic updates, and tell you where the one-time is hiding, while integrating incoming calls and texts well. In some cases, carmakers may not have the ability to update traffic conditions in the map interface as quickly.

Bentley Infotainment
Photo: Bentley

Brands forge another path

Despite this survey and others like it, car brands continue in the hopes that consumers will use their map systems, pay for their services, and disregard other aspects of popular phone-mirroring software. Sometimes, they even replicate it, now offering streaming services like Spotify and Tidal in-car.

By the time automakers catch up to the level of integration offered by Google and Apple, the game will have changed again. Frankly, the standards that automakers need to meet for various regulations are also what prevent this. It’s better to work with Apple and Google on systems that cleanly and safely integrate with buyer’s phones rather than forging their own paths. To be clear, some brands are taking these steps, like Mercedes, which is working with Google on improving its maps software. But until that happens on a larger and more accelerated scale, I imagine that results such as the ones from that survey will continue to be prevalent.

Mercedes Hyperscreen
Photo: Mercedes-Benz
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About the author: Chase Bierenkoven
Chase Bierenkoven profile photo

Chase's first word was "truck," so it's no wonder he's been getting paid to write about cars for several years now. In his free time, Chase enjoys Colorado's great outdoors in a broken German sports car of some variety.
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