CAR MAKERS have their hands full with important questions of what colour upholstery to have with the SRi trim, or, in the case of Volkswagen, whether to try reporting their emission levels accurately. Audio systems are a long way down their priority list.
That’s only to be expected: cars have a longer life expectancy than gadgets, and the likes of Ford and Vauxhall can’t be expected to keep pace with every new update from Apple and Google.
The standard recourse until now has been to buy a new stereo unit whenever you want to play catch-up. This has been good news for Halfords but less so for everyone else, since decent aftermarket kits cost anything up to £600, and they’re still less connected than your phone.
However, so long as your manufacturer-fitted stereo has basic facilities like Bluetooth, you may actually be better off using your phone itself - not just for making calls but also for music playback and navigation.
Google’s in-car app, whose name - Auto - betrays its American origins, has been around for some time now, and can display apps from your phone on the screen built into your car’s audio unit - but only if that unit is Android Auto compliant. Unless you have a very recent and very expensive motor, or you bought a top-of-the-range aftermarket stereo, it’s most unlikely to be. The same goes for Apple’s CarPlay system.
But that’s about to change. Google has released a new version of the Auto app, which runs entirely on the phone’s own display, not your car’s. That means it will work with any vehicle and requires only a cradle or dashboard mount to hold it in place.
Wires are not needed, and if your phone supports near-field communication (NFC), you don’t even need to remember to turn on Bluetooth when you get in, because a little chip stuck discretely under the dashboard can do it for you. However, you should bear in mind that using your phone in this way could well drain its battery well before journey’s end, unless you plug it into your car’s USB or lighter socket.
It has, of course, been possible to mount phones on dashboards for many years, but the level of integration offered by Google Auto is altogether new. Not only is Google’s own navigation app built in, but so are third-party platforms like Spotify, Audible audio books and the BBC radio player. Depending which mobile network you’re on, streaming music and radio while you’re on the move is surprisingly reliable - certainly no less so than regular FM reception - but do check the data allowance on your mobile tariff.
You don’t have to navigate your phone’s usual interface while you’re driving, because Auto comes with its own: just four icons at the bottom of the screen for maps, phone calls, audio and a car-friendly home screen. The Auto app is notable, too, for what it doesn’t display: no distracting notifications or alerts, and if a text arrives it will be read to you out loud.
Android Auto is free to download, and will work on any phone running the most up-to-date version of Android - which generally means those less than two years old. Apple’s CarPlay, on the other hand, remains dependent, for the foreseeable future, on the hardware in your car - Apple’s strategy, apparently, being to push the technology through car dealers. Halfords’ loss is JCT 600’s gain.