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It used to be that buying a car was a 10-year commitment. You learned to expect that good craftmanship on the automakerʼs part combined with regular maintenance on yours would keep your vehicle running long after you made the last payment. That may still be the case under the hood, but certainly not inside the dash.

Infotainment systems are now an integral part of an automaker’s sales and marketing pitch – except many vehicles equipped with systems from the recent past have been left behind. In Canada, there are no credible numbers noting how many cars have systems that have never been updated, although it’s probably not a stretch to assume it’s in the millions.

Automakers sometimes promised software updates to keep an infotainment system current, but they rarely materialized because mobile devices and their operating systems far outpaced them. App integration was largely nonexistent, and in-car navigation systems included maps that were woefully out of date and lacked real-time information.

For vehicles without built-in SIM cards for over-the-air wireless access, drivers had to update their systems with cumbersome setups. These included downloading files from a computer and then uploading them to the system with a USB stick or memory card. Or, worse yet, taking the car to the dealership and getting it done there, sometimes at a cost.

The system behind the infotainment systems was broken. As vehicles became increasingly computerized, with large screens, steering wheel controls, rear-view cameras and sensory technology becoming commonplace, the one device drivers were most likely to bring into the cabin – the smartphone – was often an afterthought.

In 2015, fewer than 20 vehicle models from a handful of automakers were equipped with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, or both. These platforms allow drivers to link their phones to the car’s dashboard screen so they can use their phone apps to navigate, check messages and listen to music playlists. Even then, not every trim available for those models offered that integration as a standard feature.

In 2019, more than 275 models from more than 40 makes come equipped with one or both of those platforms, and they are often available on every trim. More recent holdouts, such as Toyota, Lexus, Jaguar and Land Rover finally relented and began supporting those platforms, too.

Because of the staggered rollout, some cars on the road for just a year or two had no chance of backward compatibility. For example, any vehicle running an older version of Ford’s Sync system can’t get an automatic upgrade to the new Sync 4 platform set to go live on some 2020 models.

The upgrade gap may be the most convincing proof yet that today’s vehicles are roving computers. Imagine trying to run the newest version of Apple’s iOS on the iPhone 3G that launched in 2008. The hardware simply can’t handle the demands of the software, and that’s exactly what has happened to those vehicles.

The inability or unwillingness of automakers and dealerships to upgrade and retrofit older vehicles has spurred an industrious aftermarket in workarounds. Coastal Flash, based in Victoria, offers a number of services that involve “flashing” or “reflashing” the modules running the infotainment systems to make them compatible with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

The small company services General Motorsʼ vehicles from 2013-19, and beyond enabling support for CarPlay and Android Auto, can also apply various other customizations to vehicle functions, such as video playback to view media content while the car is in motion, or even performance-tuning to upgrade a computerized powertrain. A simple search online garners a number of vendors offering similar services in the United States.

When automakers are willing to do something, it may come at a cost. For a one-time fee of $445, Mazda Canada offers vehicle owners running its Connect infotainment system a retrofit that would add CarPlay and Android Auto support in select models that previously didn’t have it.

Toyota offers a retrofit for vehicles running its Entune infotainment system, although itʼs limited in scope. It strictly applies to the 2018 Camry and Camry Hybrid and 2018 Sienna, and only adds CarPlay, not Android Auto. And while Amazon Alexa is available in U.S. models, the feature isn’t offered in Canada at all, so that also isn’t part of the retrofit program.

The paradox is that many much older vehicles are easier to upgrade. Pioneer, Kenwood and Alpine all make aftermarket units with screens that have full support for CarPlay and Android Auto. Installers can sometimes find ways to not only replace the factory display, but also integrate the original infotainment functions. Every make and model is unique, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario.

It’s unclear whether more car manufacturers will look at retrofit options as potential revenue streams. If vehicle ownership is set to hit a tipping point, then perhaps there’s little incentive to help drivers get more out the systems they’ve already paid for.

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