What do the Bugatti Chiron and Volkswagen Up have in common? One is a £3 million hypercar, the other a £14,000 city car with one twentieth of the power. The answer is that neither has a touchscreen, or even no display on the center console.
The Bugatti has three dials with small integrated displays for air conditioning and performance information, along with a few displays on either side of the huge speedometer. The Volkswagen has a simple display for operating the radio, with a holder above it to hold your smartphone and present your entertainment and navigation apps of your choice.
Despite their huge differences, both the Up and Chiron take the right approach when it comes to car infotainment.
Last year BMW celebrated the 20th anniversary of its iDrive infotainment system. And while this undoubtedly represented cutting edge technology for the first ten years of its life, turning cars into computers and giving every driver satellite navigation, automotive technology has not been able to keep up with the phones in our pockets. Today’s iDrive is one of the better systems in my opinion, but even here I’d rather plug in my iPhone, fire up CarPlay and be done with it.
It’s not just BMW, of course. Today, it’s hard to imagine a manufacturer-designed infotainment system that offers a better user experience than is possible with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Many have suffered from feature creep, adding far more features and options than the average driver would ever want, while implementing gesture controls that rarely work and touch-sensitive buttons that demand too much of the driver’s attention.
While the Up’s smartphone-centric simplicity can be admired, Volkswagen’s Golf and current-generation electric ID.3 have infotainment systems with unappealing interfaces, touch-sensitive buttons that don’t light up and are invisible at night, and haptic buttons on the steering wheel that too easy to accidentally press. Don’t get me started on how the wiper controls are buried in a Tesla Model 3 touchscreen menu.
Fellow car reviewers agree, they would rather connect their smartphones and use Waze or Google Maps than suffer from the car manufacturer’s own system. This is somewhat inconvenient when launching a car, where the driving route is usually programmed into the car navigation, leaving no possibility to plug in the own phone, which has been relegated to the door bin or wireless charger.
It is difficult to determine where car manufacturers sit. Some include CarPlay and Android Auto on most of their vehicles as standard, others charge a small (or sometimes significant) fee to add them, and a handful of soldiers still go without. Chief among these is Tesla, which is no stranger to forging its own path and shows no signs of offering a smartphone-powered replacement for its own system.
Manufacturers can claim that their systems are more intuitive and therefore safer to use because they are fully integrated with all of the vehicle’s systems, from the music and navigation to the air conditioning and driver assistance systems. But here fame plays a key role. I believe that a driver in an unfamiliar car — say, a rental car at an airport — would be much safer interacting with the CarPlay or Android Auto apps they’re familiar with, rather than being intimidated by an unfamiliar system.
Likewise when it comes to navigation, where your map app of choice will certainly be easier to follow than the car’s. Music too, where faced with the option to stream from a phone to the car via Bluetooth, or tap the touchscreen to navigate your own Spotify or Apple Music playlists, will be the obvious answer for most drivers. to be.
Fortunately, a solution is slowly emerging. Google’s Android Automotive (not to be confused with the aforementioned Android Auto) is an infotainment system available in the Polestar 2, the Volvo XC40 charger and a handful of other cars. Here the car essentially runs a custom Android operating system, complete with Google Maps, Spotify, voice control via the Google Assistant and the Play Store for downloading more apps. It’s even possible to plug in an iPhone and use CarPlay, which runs within Android Automotive itself.
The Google Assistant has received some new car-based commands, so you can ask it to adjust the cabin temperature, for example. For users of Google services, it’s a much more cohesive experience than anything made by automakers themselves.
Before Google and Apple got involved, automotive technology probably felt in the same place as cell phones before the arrival of the iPhone in 2007. Where once buying a new phone meant learning a new operating system, re-entering contact numbers, and probably throw the charger of the old phone in the trash, today a new phone will just log in. With Android Automotive, this approach is finally coming to the car market, and that may take a long time.