While it's dangerous to actively browse your phone while driving, our smartphones have several functions that are quite useful in the car. In particular, map navigation and music let you find your way around anywhere and listen to your own tunes instead of relying on the radio.
Did you know that both iPhone and Android have their own car modes? Let's take a look at how they work and how you can start using them.
Apple CarPlay Basics
CarPlay is Apple's protocol that lets you connect your iPhone to a compatible head unit in your car. It provides a simple interface that lets you interact with certain apps on your device, through voice interaction or the touchscreen in your car.
To use it, you simply plug a Lightning cable from your iPhone to your car's USB port. You'll then see a CarPlay icon appear on your infotainment unit. Launch it and accept the prompt to connect on your iPhone, and you're all set.
With iOS 13 and later, the default CarPlay screen is a dashboard that provides an Apple Maps overview of your current location, plus controls for the current media and buttons to find gas stations or restaurants. Swipe from right to left and you can access the apps on your phone that work with CarPlay (see below for more info).
On the left side, you'll see quick shortcuts to jump back to your three most recently used apps, as well as info about your current mobile connection. Tap the Home button in the bottom-left to return to the dashboard or app list.
While touch inputs work for CarPlay, every app also supports voice commands via Siri. You can issue commands like Navigate to Rite Aid or Play music by Michael Jackson to avoid flipping through menus on the road. Tap the microphone icon that appears on most screens, or use the voice button on your car's steering wheel, to summon Siri.
To use CarPlay, you need an iPhone 5 or later. However, you'll also need to have a compatible car to use the feature. Take a look at Apple's CarPlay compatibility page to see if your vehicle supports it.
In general, cars from 2016 and prior don't work with CarPlay. Vehicle manufacturers have started adding support to non-luxury cars in the past few years, but it may only be included with higher trims. If you're in the market for a new car, make sure to check that your specific model has CarPlay support.
If your car doesn't have CarPlay, you can add it to your current vehicle with an aftermarket head unit. Take a look at Crutchfield's CarPlay-compatible stereos for some options, but keep in mind that replacing the unit is often a tricky job. The units also aren't cheap.
As mentioned earlier, CarPlay works with a small set of iOS apps. In general, you'll find most CarPlay apps fall into navigation, audio, or messaging categories.
Music apps like Spotify and Apple Music, as well as podcasts, audiobooks, and audio news apps, work with CarPlay. As of iOS 12, you can use third-party navigation apps (such as Google Maps) if you don't like Apple Maps. And messengers like WhatsApp allow you to hear your latest messages and send responses by voice.
Chances are that the apps already on your phone will get you started with CarPlay. Check out Apple's CarPlay page for more compatible apps.
Using Android Auto
Android Auto is similar to Apple CarPlay; it's a function of Android that lets you use your phone in your car. The major difference is that Android Auto is usable on your phone's display, even if your car doesn't support it.
If your phone has Android 10 or above, Android Auto is built-in. For older devices, download the Android Auto app to get started.
Connect your phone to your car's USB port if you have a stereo unit that works with Android Auto. Otherwise, just open the Android Auto app and you can start using it on your phone's screen.
Android Auto's controls are straightforward. On a car screen, you can select an app from the home screen to launch it and tap the Home button in the bottom-left to return there. When you have music or navigation playing in the background, you'll see a little shortcut bar appear at the bottom.
Like CarPlay, voice control through Google Assistant is baked into Android Auto. Use the microphone icons throughout or the voice command button on your steering wheel to issue requests by voice.
When using Android Auto on your phone's display, you'll see a Home button at the bottom. This home screen is like your Google Discover feed and has information from various apps, such as the weather and your calendar events.
You'll also see icons for Navigation, Phone, and Audio. Tap one of those icons to open your default app for that purpose. If you want to change the app in that category (for example, switching from Spotify to Google Podcasts) tap it again and pick a new app from the list.
Android Auto Compatibility
Android Auto works on any phone running Android 5.0 or newer, though Google recommends at least Android 6.0 for best performance. If you want to use it on your car display, check Android Auto's vehicle compatibility to see if yours will work with it.
If you don't have a compatible display, you can also buy an aftermarket stereo unit that supports Android Auto. Again, we recommend Crutchfield's Android Auto-compatible units if you're interested.
Considerations With Android Auto on Your Phone Display
If you use Android Auto on your phone's screen, there are three convenience issues to consider:
- You need a place to put your phone, so you don't endanger yourself by looking at it in your lap.
- You need a way to hear the audio through your car speakers so you can enjoy music and hear directions.
- You need a charger so your phone doesn't run out of battery.
To solve the first issue, purchase a car mount from Amazon or similar. You'll find many options, including ones that stick to your windshield, clip onto your vent blades, and even insert into your car's CD player. Miracase's universal vehicle cell phone mount cradle is a solid and inexpensive option, though you should look around to see what fits your specific needs.
For the second issue, if your car has an AUX port, you can use a standard audio cable to connect your phone to your stereo. However, most modern phones no longer have headphone jacks, so you'd have to use an adapter.
Unless your car has built-in Bluetooth, the best general option is an FM transmitter. This plugs into the power port in your car and connects to your phone via Bluetooth, then broadcasts the audio to an FM station. The audio quality isn't amazing, but it's a cost-effective solution. Try Nulaxy's Bluetooth car FM transmitter for a well-reviewed option.
Finally, to charge your phone in the car, you can buy a car charger that plugs into the cigarette lighter/power port in your vehicle. Conveniently, the above FM transmitter has a USB port right on the unit, so you don't need a separate device. Otherwise, something like Anker's mini car charger works well.
Apps for Android Auto
Android Auto has more apps available than Apple CarPlay, but they fall into the same general categories of navigation, music, and messaging. Have a look at the Android Auto page on Google Play to see what's available.
Any compatible apps you have installed will show up on your device when you use Android Auto. Some apps, like WhatsApp, won't show up in the app list on your phone screen, but let you see notifications and respond via voice once installed.
Try CarPlay or Android Auto on Your Next Drive
CarPlay and Android Auto aren't essential features, but they're great for anyone who uses navigation or media apps on their phone in the car. Their slimmed-down interfaces with full voice control make it easier to interact with content while driving without distractions.
If you have Android, you can enjoy Android Auto without any special hardware in your car. CarPlay has a higher barrier to entry, but it will hopefully become available on more cars in the future.
For more tips, why not learn how to get more battery life from your smartphone?