Your Car and Your Smartphone's Coming Communication Breakdown


(Photo: Rob Pegoraro)

You’ll see the downside of your next car having a computer for a dashboard when you go to buy a new phone and realize it’s not compatible with that car.

Maybe this won’t be a problem. If you and your ride’s manufacturer share the same excellent taste in mobile devices for the next ten years, the touchscreen in your car should elegantly pair with your current phone, and your next one, and the one after that, to keep you on course and on the right soundtrack.

But the market could swerve, and you could find that your big four-wheeled computer doesn’t talk with that new phone you want (or that your company supplies to you). You’ll be dropped back to a 2010 level of car connectivity: resting the phone in a cupholder and listening to it call out turns over Bluetooth. If you’re lucky.

What Smartphone Side Are You On? 
Blame this on competing, proprietary ways to do the same basic job. In one corner we have Apple’s CarPlay, announced last March; in the other there’s Google’s Android Auto, introduced last June.

Both mirror the more important apps on your smartphone—navigation, music, calls, texts—to a touchscreen interface that relies heavily on voice interaction to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.

And both have almost the same backing from vehicle manufacturers that pledge to ship models with this software soon: Apple and Google Web both list Audi, Chevy, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Jeep, Kia, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Volkswagen and Volvo among their major supporters.

Apple also touts CarPlay compatibility from BMW, Mercedes and Toyota, who don’t show up on Google’s list. The industry analysts I consulted don’t expect that balkanized state to persist—“it doesn’t make sense for those automakers to ignore Android Auto, “ said’s Ron Montoya—but stranger things have happened.

It’s Not All About iOS And Android
Furthermore, neither Apple nor Google have a monopoly on good ideas in smartphones. Although for Microsoft’s Windows Phone and competing mobile systems to get an equivalent welcome from cars, they’re going to need the offer manufacturers something different that Android Auto or CarPlay.

There is an open standard out there called MirrorLink that does the same basic thing. But it’s gotten only a conceptual-level endorsement from Microsoft and little support in the U.S. market: At CES, VW said it would build in MirrorLink software as well as CarPlay and Android Audio.

You can’t blame carmakers for holding off. Apple isn’t supporting MirrorLink (at this point, they don’t have to). Only a few Android phone vendors have added MirrorLink, and only to a small sampling of models, like Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 and Note Edge and Sony’s Xperia Z3.

Reticle Research analyst Ross Rubin outlined the most likely fallback option: “a lot of Bluetooth links to proprietary systems.”

Think of the brand-specific setups like Ford’s Sync or Toyota’s Entune. For anything more than that basic feature of hands-free calling, they may leave you waiting for a car manufacturer to push out a needed software update.

Cars last too long
Cars are not like most computers in one fortunate aspect: Properly maintained, they keep running for a decade or longer. But combined with the long lead time involved in getting new features into mass production, drivers get stuck with a carmaker’s decisions for even longer.

For example, the last U.S.-model car with a tape deck was a 2010 Lexus. Just last year, I was amused at the Washington Auto Show to see an Acura that could play DVD-Audio discs. We’re only starting to see a pullback from building in CD players: Edmunds’ Montoya said 91 percent of 2014-year cars included one, down from 94 percent five years earlier.

Now consider one other sort of car-connectivity advance: having your car be your phone. GM, for instance, has been adding AT&T LTE to its vehicles, allowing them to get directions and play Internet radio without a phone’s help.

That can being some advantages, starting with better reception provided by a car’s larger antenna. Catherine McCullough, executive director of the Intelligent Car Coalition, noted that car-as-Internet-hotspot can provide other benefits, to “families, carpools, shared vehicles (think Uber), people who travel for work and do a lot of work in their cars.”

But it’s also redundant, adds another data bill to your budget and usually locks you into one carrier.

And since the wireless industry itself doesn’t stay still either, you could end up with the wireless version of an 8-track tape deck in your car. Some GM cars shipped with analog-only cellular radios for their OnStar systems in 2005, a little more than two years before analog vanished from the airwaves.

So while I’m intrigued by where car connectivity is going, I’m also thinking about how any mistakes being made now will still be shipping on new vehicles in 2018. And they’ll be on the road for another 10 years after that.