I already have a smartphone, so why does my car need to be a ‘smartphone on wheels’?

LG Display
(Image credit: LG)

Last week at CES 2024 in Las Vegas, LG announced its “smartphone on wheels concept”. Essentially this concept is an extension of an ongoing trend in automobiles, with automakers peddling screens at every available opportunity. 

The general idea here is that cars themselves have to become high-powered computers. Not to offer features like autonomous driving, but to effectively compete with smartphones and tablets. But beyond staples like audio and navigation, these cars are built to more or less entertain their occupants and distract drivers from the journey happening around them.

And it’s a move that’s totally unnecessary. Because so long as people carry smartphones, the idea of turning cars into “smartphones on wheels” is completely redundant.

It’s folly for cars to try and compete with phones

Android Auto dashboard

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Long gone are the days where a tape deck or CD changer would be considered the pinnacle of in-car technology. These days even the low-cost cars all seem to come with a range of digital displays, a central touchscreen and at the very least GPS navigation. But the more expensive the car, the fancier that technology gets. Larger touchscreens, streaming apps, games, LTE connections and a stock interface that wouldn’t look out of place on an Android tablet.

Basically the modern premium car isn’t a car. The manufacturers are doing their darndest to turn your vehicle into a roaming entertainment center. Or more crucially, one that can stand on its own without input from another device. And I know I’m not the only one that’s thinking, “why?”. What’s the point in having all this built into your car, especially if you’re going to be the one driving it?

Manufacturers are doing their darndest to turn your vehicle into a roaming entertainment center.

There are a bunch of arguments to be made here. One popular one is that it’s those pesky electric cars and their slow recharge times. You’re having to sit there waiting to drive on, the car might as well entertain you, right? Likewise there’s the idea that while drivers can’t (or shouldn’t be) watching Netflix or playing games while the car is moving, the same isn’t true for passengers. Especially kids, who have a habit of getting rather annoying when they’re bored.

I know how boring both scenarios can get. Being driven around with the same view for hours on end is about as fun as having your tonsils out, and the same goes for sitting at an electric car charger along the highway when all you want to do is get home. But there are already ways to pass the time, very easily.

When I was a kid, that meant packing a Game Boy and a fresh set of batteries. Nowadays that role has been filled by smartphones and tablets. It’s a distraction versatile enough that it can keep anyone occupied, no matter their age or tastes, and the proliferation of USB ports in cars means you’re not likely to run out of AA batteries 3 hours away from your destination. 

Ok, so a built-in car entertainment system can do the same thing. But the difference is that it’s stuck in the car. You can’t pick it up and take it with you when the drive is over. You can’t upgrade the hardware without spending tens of thousands of dollars on a brand new car. 

More to the point, a car can’t do any of this stuff better than the alternatives. The best you could hope for is some level of parity with a phone. And you have to wonder, what’s the

Phones are versatile enough to handle the legwork 

CarPlay at WWDC 2022

(Image credit: Apple via YouTube)

There’s an argument to be made that cars are larger than phones, and have space for more powerful components that can offer things your iPhone 15 Pro Max is too small for. High-end Teslas can play AAA PC games, for instance, including ones from Steam

Then again why would you need it to? This isn’t a machine you’d use for things that require heavy CPU usage, like video editing or software encoding. Everything else, from streaming to navigation could easily be handled by a smartphone. Even a dirt cheap model can still access Netflix and Spotify. So why aren’t we taking better advantage of that in our cars?

Well in truth, it already is. Every time you use Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, everything that happens on your car’s central screen is actually happening on your phone — just with a slightly different interface. All your favorite (car safe) apps, already logged into your accounts and utilizing the same data plan as your phone.

Ok this process is limited right now. Especially if you’re buying a new car from GM, who have decided to shun CarPlay and Android Auto for a variety of reasons that don’t seem to make sense. 

The limitations are that your phone can only access a single screen, and it can’t connect with your car’s computer the same way bespoke software can. So no reading fuel levels or battery percentages. But that may not be the case for much longer.

Apple’s already announced changes to Apple CarPlay, which will see your phone effectively take over every display in your car — including the gauge cluster behind the steering wheel. That will be available later this year in select new Porsche and Aston Martin cars. Similarly Google Maps has announced Google Maps on Android Auto will be getting the ability to read EV battery data in real time — and add recharging stops to your route if necessary.

Smartphones are very versatile, and can be used for a lot more than just phones. You only need to look at Samsung’s DeX software, and how it’s able to run a desktop-like experience from a Galaxy smartphone to see that in action. While Android Auto and CarPlay are imperfect, they’ve already shown how solid smartphone support can transform the in-car experience. And in a way that can be upgraded a lot more easily than if you bake this functionality into the car — from both software and hardware standpoints.

As for those of you that don’t use smartphones, well, I’m guessing you probably don’t want any of this nonsense in your car anyway. 

Bottom line 

Mercedes EQS dash board

(Image credit: Mercedes)

A reasonably new modern car is rather a pricey thing to purchase, and it’s understandable that carmakers would want to offer things that make that purchase feel worthwhile. Not to mention the fact that some cars will use these smarter features as gimmicks to try and push sales. Like Tesla, with the whole deal surrounding AAA gaming.

But the whole thing just screams of wasted effort and money, when resources could be better spent ensuring cars can take advantage of the features and processing power in your smartphone. That glass rectangle you carry around in your pocket is a computing marvel, and most people are only utilizing a small amount of its capabilities. 

It’s about time carmakers figured that out, and utilized their own computing prowess on something no other device can handle — like figuring out how to make the cars to drive themselves.

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Tom Pritchard
UK Phones Editor

Tom is the Tom's Guide's UK Phones Editor, tackling the latest smartphone news and vocally expressing his opinions about upcoming features or changes. It's long way from his days as editor of Gizmodo UK, when pretty much everything was on the table. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining about how terrible his Smart TV is.