Google and Apple bring smartphone functions to car dashboards
Playing deejay with voice commands will get easier for more Americans this autumn as some best-selling cars get updated with software that integrates smartphones into the dashboard.
With the 2016 model year, Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto will turn cars as affordable as a base model Chevy Spark into rolling robotic assistants that give directions to nearby restaurants or play the latest hits with commands as simple as "Play Ellie Goulding".
As with phones, voice-activated car technologies don't always work as intended, bringing up inaccurate directions or failing to open an app, for example. But overall the two systems are convenient and intuitive.
CarPlay and Android Auto should give drivers more time to keep their eyes on the road compared with carmakers' own voice systems, which can require multiple steps and looking at menus. Still, as with any system requiring driver input, there are concerns about distraction.
"Anything that takes your attention away from the task of driving is not something you want to engage in," said Kathy Lane, a spokeswoman for the National Safety Council, a non-profit organisation created by Congress to promote safety.
Consumers increasingly want to use their smartphone while driving - without running afoul of the law. For the last few years, drivers of most new cars have been able to speak to their phones and have audio stream through a car's speakers using the nearly ubiquitous Bluetooth wireless standard. However, doing so can require fiddling with the phone, like holding down the home button first.
CarPlay and Android Auto allow voice commands to be turned on with a touch of a steering wheel button. Phones need to be plugged into the USB port, where the phone is kept charging and powering the in-car entertainment. You can access maps, voicemail, phone contacts and music apps using a touch screen embedded in the dashboard - no need to grab your phone.
One wrinkle is that Apple reserves voice commands for its proprietary apps - phone, maps, texts and Apple Music. That means the magical ability for iPhone users to ask the digital voice assistant Siri such complicated tasks as "play the top song from 2011" will only work if you're paying US$10 a month for Apple Music. However, you can use your voice to play songs you have downloaded and own on your iPhone.
The less restrictive Android Auto will allow you to use apps like Spotify as long as you specifically tell it to "play Aerosmith on Spotify," or set Spotify as the default music app. A Spotify subscription costs US$10 a month.
"CarPlay and Android Auto are about to really hit the mainstream," said Kelly Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer. "We're talking about some 40 to 50 models that'll have it in probably the next 12 months or less, which is maybe about 20 per cent of the entire car market."
IHS analyst Colin Bird predicted that carmakers in the US and Canada would sell a modest 497,000 vehicles with CarPlay, Android Auto or both this year. The number should jump to five million in 2018 and nearly 10 million in 2020.
But CarPlay and Android Auto aren't perfect. On a demo of a 2016 Accord Touring, the Android Auto voice assistant helped me play songs from artists like Adele, Sting and Ellie Goulding but would not recognise "U2" as anything other than "YouTube." It also failed to open the iHeart Radio app.