Apple and Android users want functionality in their cars, but what is Apple CarPlay? Android Auto? We’re explaining their benefits and how they work. 

Explaining Smartphone Integration in Cars

2022 Chevy Blazer Infotainment System -
2022 Chevy Blazer Infotainment System -

Cars are getting smarter with more tech-infused features every day. In previous decades, passengers were just happy to have an AM/FM radio, or a car phone, or a CD player. Now, people expect connectivity when they get into a car, and automakers are delivering that through Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and even Alexa Auto.  Take a look at any new vehicle review from the last decade and you’re sure to see the words ‘Apple CarPlay and Android Auto’ pop up. 

Both systems are mentioned in our 2022 Lexus RX review and our 2022 Mercedes-Benz C-Class review. There are some exceptions. If you looked at our 2022 Mini Cooper review, you know that the 2022 Cooper doesn’t offer Android Auto, but does at least have Apple CarPlay in its top trims. Our 2023 Toyota GR Supra review reveals the same thing about the popular coupe. Even more rare are the vehicles that don’t integrate with either smartphone (see our 2022 Tesla Model Y review), but that lack of integration loses them a point on the connectivity front.

Automakers always make sure to note their capabilities whenever Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available because it’s another amenity for their car-buying customers. What exactly is Apple CarPlay though? What does Android Auto do? How does Alexa Auto improve the driving experience? You’re about to find out.

Apple CarPlay

Apple CarPlay -
Apple CarPlay -

CarPlay is the smartphone software that was first introduced in vehicles. It was released in March 2014. The software was available on all iPhone models beginning with the iPhone 5 operating system. When your iPhone is connected to your vehicle, usually via a USB cord, the Apple CarPlay software allows iPhone applications to be displayed on the car’s infotainment system. Those same volume knobs and vehicle infotainment system buttons can then control the iPhone apps, too.

The goal of this CarPlay software is to reduce the use of a smartphone, in this case an iPhone, while driving. You don’t need to pick up your phone to listen to text messages or send a voice message in response. Most cars already have Bluetooth for hands-free calls, but CarPlay integration shows a layout on the screen that more closely resembles that of an iPhone home screen. Your car’s infotainment screen doesn’t display an exact mirrored version of your iPhone screen, but it’s similar. As a bonus, the iPhone is charged when it’s plugged into the vehicle.

There’s a little bit of initial setup that is involved in connecting an iPhone to a vehicle, but it’s generally very easy. After granting some permissions, it’s a plug-and-play situation. Need to exit out of CarPlay? Not a problem. An icon or button will allow you to switch back and forth between your vehicle’s infotainment system and Apple CarPlay. Any Apple owner knows that one advantage of having Apple products is that they work together. Apple CarPlay can make use of that Apple Music subscription in a way that other auto apps can’t. Apple has a list of more than 600 models that currently support CarPlay.

Android Auto

Android Auto -
Android Auto -

CarPlay is available for Apple users, and Android Auto is available for Android users. The mobile app was developed by Google and released in March 2015, just a year after Apple CarPlay was introduced. Android Auto mirrors features of the Android device (phone, tablet, or something else) and displays it on the dashboard touchscreen.

Just like CarPlay, Android Auto allows easy access to messages, music, and other media. Navigation, calls, and additional Android smartphone features can also be controlled by your vehicle once connected. You may be glancing at your infotainment screen and using the knobs to switch functions, but you at least won’t be holding your phone in one hand while looking down at it.

The connection process is mostly the same with an Android as it is with an Apple phone. Plug in, grant permissions, and use as needed. Some users say Android Auto has the more user-friendly setup of the two software systems. Of course, you have to use whatever your phone is compatible with. If you have an Apple phone, you can’t download Android Auto and use it. Android users can’t utilize Apple CarPlay either. To find out if your vehicle supports Android, you can check the full list of Android Auto compatibility.

Alexa Auto

Alexa Auto -
Alexa Auto -

If Apple and Google are putting out integration for your vehicle, you know that Amazon isn’t going to be far behind! Echo Auto is the name of the device that delivers Amazon’s hands-free version of Alexa straight to your vehicle. It’s not as prominent as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto yet, but some models are starting to include Alexa Built-In devices. That means you can make verbal requests of Alexa in your vehicle the same way you do in your home. Asking Alexa for a weather report, asking her to play a particular song, or asking her for the route to the nearest gas station can all be done by saying a few words.

The downside of Alexa Auto is that it doesn’t work with everything. It doesn’t cover turn-by-turn navigation on its own. It has to be integrated with Apple Maps, Google Maps, or Waze. Text messaging is also a challenge. Alexa, and the Amazon Echo Dot, can only send messages to Android users. There are also a few extra steps to getting text messaging set up through Alexa.

However, the benefit of Alexa Auto is that many of the functions can be used by many more people. It doesn’t matter if you prefer an iPhone to an Android. You can likely still use Alexa Auto in some capacity. Several dozen models already have available Alexa integrations. Jaguar Land Rover integrated Alexa into all of their vehicles earlier this year. Amazon also lists all of their Alexa Built-in automotive devices so you can find a stereo or a Garmin or a Bluetooth FM transmitter that will work with Alexa, too.

What’s Next?

Wireless Phone Charging -
Wireless Phone Charging -

Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Alexa Auto integration can be found in most vehicles these days, but car brands are already taking the next step forward: wireless integration. Our 2023 Subaru Outback review explains that wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity is available, but only on the higher Outback trims. This 2022 Polestar 2 review revealed that while the vehicle isn’t capable of wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto yet, Polestar hopes to make that feature available in Polestar 2 models soon.

One negative to wireless integration is that your phone is no longer connected to your vehicle so it’s not recharging during your drive time unless you have wireless device charging (another feature car manufacturers are starting to offer). This wireless aspect is still a relatively new element in the world of smartphone connectivity, so it’s usually offered in higher-end vehicles, or on the higher trims, right now. Give it a few years though. It’s sure to make its way down to the base models in the future.

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Jesse Batson

Jesse Batson earned his journalism degree from South Dakota State University. No stranger to newsgathering and reporting, Jesse spent 13 years in TV news. 10 of those years were spent working in Charlotte, NC, home of NASCAR. A highlight of his time there was being able to take a lap around the Charlotte Motor Speedway. His interest in vehicles, starting with Matchbox cars, a Big Wheel, and the Transformers, evolved into taking photos of motocross events. Now, he puts his research skills to use on car culture, reviews, and comparisons.

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