With the 2016 model year, Apple's Car-Play and Google's Android Auto will turn cars as affordable as a base model Chevy Spark into rolling robotic assistants that give directions to nearby restaurants or play the latest hits with commands as simple as "Play Ellie Goulding."
The Associated Press recently tried out both systems on a 2016 Honda Accord. As with phones, voice-activated car technologies don't always work as intended, bringing up inaccurate directions or failing to open an app, for example. But overall the two systems are convenient and incredibly intuitive.
Both Car-Play and Android Auto should give drivers more time to keep their eyes on the road compared with the automakers' own voice systems, which can require multiple steps and looking at on-screen menus. Still, as with any system that requires driver input, there are concerns about distraction.
"Anything that takes your attention away from the task of driving is not something you want to engage in," said Kathy Lane, a spokeswoman for the National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization created by Congress to promote safety.
Neither system has been tested yet by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says spokesman Russ Rader. The institute studies both human and mechanical factors in trying to reduce the number of vehicle crashes.
Consumers increasingly want to use their smartphone while driving—without running afoul of the law. For the last few years, drivers of most new cars have been able to speak to their phones and have audio stream through a car's speakers using the nearly ubiquitous Bluetooth wireless standard. However, doing so can require fiddling with the phone, like holding down the home button first.
Both Car-Play and Android Auto allow voice commands to be turned on with a touch of a steering wheel button. Phones need to be plugged into the USB port, where the phone is kept charging and powering the in-car entertainment. You can access maps, voicemail, phone contacts and music apps using a touch screen embedded in the dashboard—no need to grab your phone.
One wrinkle is that Apple reserves voice commands for its proprietary apps—phone, maps, texts and Apple Music. That means the magical ability for iPhone users to ask the digital voice assistant Siri such complicated tasks as "play the top song from 2011" will only work if you're paying $10 a month for Apple Music. (It's Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," if you were wondering.) However, you can use your voice to play songs you have downloaded and own on your iPhone