By Zach Vlasuk – Kelly Blue Book
Underneath the sea of acronyms, ambiguous descriptions and confusing marketing messages lies the true essence of in-vehicle infotainment and electronics: Better living through technology. But keeping up to speed on the most recent advancements in consumer technology can be exhausting, particularly in the automotive realm.
To help cut through the clutter, we’ve detailed the latest and greatest tech features designed to make your driving experience more fun, safe and efficient. And whether you’re an early adopter or a staunch holdout, in-vehicle tech will almost certainly play a key role in your next vehicle purchase. Not only that, but the trickle-down effect applies to technology in all its forms, meaning the majority of features listed below are available on new vehicles costing less than $25,000.
1. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
Availability: Select GM, Kia, Hyundai, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Honda models (limited availability for 2015/2016 model-year vehicles)
Apple and Google, in partnership with automotive software developers, have proven once again that the simplest solution is usually the best one. Since the dawn of the smartphone age, drivers have been wondering, “Why can’t my car’s multimedia interface simply imitate that of my phone?” Now it can. Simply plug in your phone via a USB cable (wireless functionality is on the way) and voilà! The digital interface with which you’re most familiar is now accessible through your vehicle’s audio display. As you might expect, the layout is optimized for automotive use, meaning both CarPlay and Android Auto employ large, easily discernable icons, a heavy reliance on voice control and, because playing Candy Crush Saga at 70 mph is a recipe for disaster, access only to apps deemed appropriate for use behind the wheel.
In terms of content, fans of either system can use third-party apps like Spotify, iHeartRadio and Stitcher, along with helpful native features like hands-free text messaging and directions. Speaking of the latter, navigation services are determined by your phone’s operating system (CarPlay uses Apple Maps, Android Auto uses Google Maps). If you’re not in the market for a new vehicle, the aftermarket offers in-dash CarPlay and/or Android Auto solutions for about $700. Perhaps best of all is the fact that, like your smartphone, both systems are updateable. In other words, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay might just be the future-proof infotainment systems we’ve all been waiting for.
2. Expanded Bluetooth
Availability: Most subcompact cars and up
While Bluetooth has become synonymous with hands-free calling, this short-range wireless technology has a lot more to offer in the way of smartphone connectivity. If you own an Android, Blackberry or Windows phone, chances are your device contains the Bluetooth specification called the Message Access Profile. MAP, as it’s commonly known, lets you compose and send text messages from a list of customizable canned responses or, in some cases, allows for on-the-fly messages through the use of off-board voice recognition (a dedicated Internet server that converts your words into text). Apple users can leverage their iPhone’s virtual assistant through the factory- or dealer-installed Siri Eyes Free feature, which can be activated through the voice recognition button located on the steering wheel. When called into action, Siri Eyes Free lets you send and receive text messages, make phone calls, select and play music, set reminders and access Apple maps for spoken turn-by-turn directions.
Virtually all vehicles fitted with Bluetooth bundle hands-free phone capability with a music streaming function. This type of connection lets you stream any form of audio from a Bluetooth-enabled device through the vehicle’s sound system. As a bonus, Bluetooth audio can be controlled through the vehicle’s original audio controls, so there’s no need to fiddle with your phone when it’s time to switch tracks. The music streaming feature also shows the current track, album and artist info on your vehicle’s audio display.
3. USB Ports
Availability: Most subcompact cars and up
USB ports are a great way to charge accessories and listen to music through audio devices without a wireless function, such as older iPods, USB flash drives and maybe the Microsoft Zune. USB audio also offers several advantages over Bluetooth. For instance, Bluetooth compresses audio signals so as to transmit data wirelessly, degrading sound quality. Conversely, USB transfers music from your device to the audio system at a lossless rate, resulting in unaffected sound quality. And, until automakers adopt the Bluetooth specification known as AVRC 1.4, USB is the only means of browsing your music via the vehicle’s audio display.
4. Keyless Access and Start
Availability: Select subcompacts, most compact cars and up
You’ve got better things to do than dig around in your pockets or purse for the keys. Keyless access utilizes radio signals to wirelessly communicate with your key fob when it comes within close proximity of your vehicle. Using a button or touch sensor on the door handle, you can lock and unlock your car without ever removing the key fob from your pocket or bag. These encrypted radio signals disengage the vehicle’s theft immobilizer as well, allowing you to start the vehicle with the push of a button.
5. App Integration
Availability: Select subcompact cars and up
Smartphone users prefer to be connected to their content at all times. Most automakers took note of this rising demand for connectivity on the go and responded by offering in-vehicle access to a number of popular mobile apps. Most infotainment systems on the market leverage the user’s smartphone data connection, while the remainder draw on an embedded cellular modem to send and receive data. The latter carries a monthly service fee of roughly $30 – $40 per month. “Piggyback” systems from Chevrolet, Toyota, Lexus, Mazda and Honda leverage your smartphone’s data plan for app connectivity, and thus do not carry supplemental service charges. In terms of available product, common apps across most carlines include Pandora radio, Bing Local Search, Stitcher Radio, The Weather Channel, Movietickets.com, OpenTable, Aha Radio and Glympse location sharing.
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