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Smartphones long ago replaced our cameras and our music players. Now they’re taking over our cars.

Phones are taking the place of things like our car’s navigation systems, radios and even allowing us to get text messages without taking our eyes off the road.

Particularly for younger car shoppers, the ability for our car to play nicely with our smartphone is a key factor when deciding which model to buy, said Tim Babbitt, a senior product technologist at General Motors (GM)

“It’s a major checklist item, because they want to plug in their phone and listen to their music, take calls, listen to podcasts – a whole range of things that they currently imagine a vehicle to be able to do,” he said. “And now, as we continue to add technology to the vehicle, things they didn’t imagine.”

For years, automakers have been struggling to create “infotainment” systems that will allow drivers to safely use their phones without distracting them too much. But phone makers have stepped in to fill that niche, too. Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto work with many newer models from most major carmakers.

They offer the straightforward solution of recreating a simplified version of the phone screen on the car’s own central display. There, the “home screen” is populated with only selected apps that have been designed to work with CarPlay or Android Auto and to be safely used while driving.

Both programs can also be updated so that new features and capabilities can be downloaded onto your phone and will then show up in your car the next time you drive.

Google will release an updated version of Android Auto this summer with a number of changes. To keep up with changing dashboards in new cars, Android Auto will now adjust to fill the wider touchscreens on many new cars and trucks. It will also have a new “dark theme” and a new color palette that, Google said, will be “easier on the eyes.” Users will also now be able to see navigation directions on the same screen with calls or audio information.

With Apple's CarPlay and Android's Auto, drivers can have their text messages read to them.
Frank Duenzl/dpa/AP
With Apple's CarPlay and Android's Auto, drivers can have their text messages read to them.

With CarPlay and Android Auto, drivers can even have text messages read to them as they drive and then speak a reply that will be turned into a text message in response. That’s one of the most important functions of these systems, said Mark Takahashi, an editor with Edmunds.com.

“Texting has become such an important part of communication nowadays,” he said. “Eliminating the distraction of texting while driving is essentially eliminated with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, it’s incredibly useful.”

When it comes to keeping drivers’ hands off their phones, CarPlay and Android Auto actually performed better than any of the systems the automakers have come up with, a recent Consumer Reports’ survey found.

Still, said GM’s Babbit, automakers can’t simply give up on creating a good interface of their own. CarPlay and Android Auto don’t work for everything and they rely on a strong mobile phone signal, which isn’t always available. Automakers can even integrate apps like Spotify and OpenTable into the car in a way that might be better than what phone makers can offer because GM knows the car better, he said. Also, not all auto buyers have the latest smartphones that work with these technologies.

“So part of that is to make sure that we’re bringing, safely, their digital life into the car,” he said.