In depth: How to make sure your next car is future-proofed

Whenever we buy a new piece of technology, we have to weigh the decision carefully. With a phone it isn’t simply a case of picking the device with the biggest screen or the fastest processor; there’s a more fundamental decision: iPhone or Android?

Whichever you choose will lock you into that device’s ecosystem for the next couple of years – and your choice of apps and features will be limited by the side you pick.

And with today’s cars becoming increasingly tech-filled, from sat navs and entertainment systems to what are essentially in-car operating systems, considerations of compatibility, obsolescence – and yes, Apple vs Android – are now just as important when you’re buying a new set of wheels.

We don’t replace our cars as often as we replace our phones, or even our games consoles. According to one report, most American consumers now plan to hold on to their car for 10 years before trading it in.

When we buy car, then, we’re essentially gambling that the features and functions on offer will still be useful in maybe a decade’s time – and given the pace at which technology evolves, there’s a real risk that we could end up lumbered with the automotive equivalent of a Betamax or HD-DVD player, long after they’ve become obsolete.

So what to do? Here’s our guide to future-proofing your car to make sure you’re asking for the right things… or that you’re at least able to upgrade when the time comes.

Entertainment and navigation

Car manufacturers and smartphone makers know that in the future we’re going to expect a lot more from both our vehicles and our phones – and Apple and Google have done something really smart. Apple has created CarPlay, while Google is offering Android Auto.

The future of cars
Apple’s CarPlay brings the iOS experience to your vehicle

The idea with both is that you plug your phone into your car, and a screen on your dashboard will give you access to car-friendly versions of the apps on your phone – Google Maps, Spotify or whatever.

All of the processing takes place on your phone, with the screen on the dash being simply an easily accessible window to the data you need. This means that over the next decade, as your phone gets faster and smarter your car will too, without needing to replace your vehicle.

So in 2026, when you’re plugging in your iPhone 11 or Galaxy S15, you’ll still be able to run the latest apps, even if you’re driving a 2017 Ford Fiesta.

So the advice here is simple: make sure your next car supports CarPlay and Android Auto, and your car’s entertainment system will easily be able to keep pace with your phone.

At the time of writing, over 100 different cars support CarPlay, and a similar number support Android Auto. If you want to upgrade your current car, Pioneer make a number of aftermarket devices which you can plug into certain head units.

Autonomous driving

If you try to imagine the day you buy a driverless car, you probably see some distant time in the future when you hand over the keys to your boring old conventional car, and pick up a fully autonomous vehicle that looks like something out of the Jetsons.

It turns out, however, that the autonomous revolution won’t be like that – and in fact, you may already own your first driverless car.

Thanks to the power of connected vehicle technology, car makers are able to issue regular software updates that add new functionality to vehicles already on the road. Most famously this happened with Tesla, which introduced ‘Autopilot’ mode as an over-the-air update for existing Model S owners.

The future of cars

This added features that enabled the car to steer itself when it can detect lines demarcating the sides of the road, and adaptive cruise control to ensure that you maintain a safe distance from the car in front of you.

It even added a ‘summon’ mode, which enables owners to press a button on an app and have the car drive up to them over short distances.

Tesla isn’t unique, and there are a number of these ‘semi-autonomous’ cars, including the BMW 750i and the Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG.

So it seems inevitable that over the next decade we’re going to see more autonomous features. In fact, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has publicly speculated that we could see fully autonomous vehicles on the road as early as 2017, and that by 2018 Teslas will be driving coast to coast in the United States autonomously (we’ll believe it when we see it).

What this means for you is that if you’re buying a new car now, your best bet is to buy one that’s semi-autonomous or one that’s at least connected, and able to receive updates, so that when carmakers do bring the technology to market you’ll be best placed to receive the software enhancements.

Safety first

From April 2018, all cars sold in the European Union will be required to support eCall, a system that will automatically transmit data if anything goes wrong.

Essentially, the system will automatically contact the emergency services over a voice connection, as well as transmit a ‘minimum set of data’, which includes the vehicle’s location, so that emergency services can reach you faster.

The future of cars
eCall technology will become prevalent and massively useful

At the moment no specific models have been named as the first to feature the new standard, though the European Commission has voted for all cars created from April 2018 to be eCall compliant.

In the meantime, or if you don’t want to upgrade your car and still want the benefits of eCall technology, Bosch has created a Retrofit eCall plug, which plugs into the 12V socket on your dashboard and connects to your phone via bluetooth.

This does the same thing, and if its accelerometers detect a crash it will automatically call for help and transmit your location (pricing and availability has not yet been announced).