As car manufacturers step up the development of in-car infotainment systems and technology giants Apple and Google continue to make their presence felt, smartphone integration is set to become far more important in vehicle purchasing decisions
In February this year, I attended Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona as a guest of Ford South Africa and saw first hand how the company’s new in-car infotainment system SYNC 3 works. MWC is the largest and most important event in the mobile industry that sees all major smartphone manufacturers announce their flagships and innovations for the year. MWC 2016 marked the fifth consecutive year that Ford had an exhibit at the show.
SYNC 3 (pictured below) is quite a significant upgrade compared with the previous two generations of the infotainment system (SYNC and SYNC 2), which relied on Microsoft for its underlying technology. Its next-generation platform now has been built from the ground up and runs on BlackBerry’s QNX platform, an operating system for embedded systems. Most importantly, it has support for Google and Apple’s smartphone projection via vehicles' infotainment systems.
A basic infotainment system allows a driver to make use their smartphones in a safer environment, while still keeping their full attention on the road. It conveniently lets you make or take calls hands-free, handles text messages, offers GPS/mapping support, and plays music from existing playlists or podcasts. But this also means there’s another screen competing for your attention on the dashboard.
Technology giants Google and Apple are, unsurprisingly, playing in this space, and have released Android Auto and CarPlay, respectively. These systems allow you to pair your handset to the supported car or platform and use it in a way that is familiar to you, like an extension of your smartphone. It also supports Google Voice and Siri, making it a seamless transition for drivers to make use of their own device services, rather than that of a car manufacturer.
While SYNC on its own is one of the better infotainment systems I’ve tried (it even recognises my accent), Android Auto and CarPlay are superior thanks to a deeper level of integration. The vehicle's infotainment screen transforms into an expanded view of your smartphone with, for example, full support of Google Cards to provide you with weather reports, directions and what’s nearby. This is great if you don’t want to learn yet another system’s interface. SYNC 2 has only just hit our shores, so expect some time before we see SYNC 3...
Last year, Hyundai became the first car manufacturer in the US to make Android Auto available to consumers with the release of the 2015 Sonata. Once you plug a compatible handset and tap the Android Auto icon, your smartphone becomes your infotainment system. It also supports third-party apps like TuneIn Radio, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, etc.
Meanwhile, General Motors has been rolling out CarPlay to the bulk of its fleet with speed; faster than its rivals in the US market. According to the Wall Street Journal, GM made CarPlay available on 27 of its models before the end of 2015, which was “far more than any other auto company.”
It has also been reported that GM’s CarPlay integration has helped the company sell more vehicles. The reason being that in-car navigation is optional and costs $900-$1 000 to add-on, but with CarPlay built-in, it costs nothing more for vehicles with a built-in display. So what does this mean for consumers back in South Africa?
There are currently only a handful of manufacturers that offer CarPlay and Android Auto support, however only CarPlay works in South Africa. Android Auto (see a demonstration below) is supported on the same vehicles as CarPlay, but due to pending licensing agreements between Google and local authorities, the service is not yet active in South Africa.
Manufacturers that have confirmed support for both these services include Volkswagen (2016 models fitted with the MIB II radio, and an activation fee needs to be paid if Active Info Display isn’t fitted); Chevrolet (2016 Captiva); Audi (2016 Q7 and A4); and Volvo (2016 XC90). CarPlay currently works for these models.
Given the current economy and decline in vehicle sales in March 2016, which according to NAAMSA are sitting on the double digits compared to a year ago, most of us are going to (be forced?) to make smarter buying decisions. I don’t know about you, but if I’m buying a car this year, I’d want some of the features to be relevant till at least 2021.
As someone who already uses my smartphone for navigation and exploring, I’d want to be able to continue doing that, but instead, have my directions read out through my car speakers. The ability to use voice commands to play music, pause, or skip tracks? Yes, I’d like that too, especially if I’m going to spend that much on a car in 2016.
When mobile and car manufacturers collaborate and invest heavily in smart technology, and it’s paying off in other markets, it’s time for South African motorists to sit up and pay attention.
Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent those of Cars.co.za or its editorial content team.