In just two decades, we've gone from route books/ maps to smartphone connectivity.
We're living in a time when it's almost expected that a car on sale - at least in its highest trim level - will come with something like Apple Car Play, Android Auto, or Mirror Link. Smartphone connectivity has become such an important function in cars, especially as it's practically necessary to carry one with you in this day and age - and some cars even go so far as to offer integrated internet connectivity for their onboard systems.
For many, it's the convenience of having the interface of their smartphone on the head unit of their car. It's the fact that they no longer have to pair their phones or manually run streaming services on their devices for in-car music playback. One of the strongest points is also the fact that you get high-quality GPS navigation with your application of choice from your smartphone.
But it wasn't always like this, as you would expect. Even up until the 1970s, having a simple radio in your car was seen as a luxury. Cassette players were also an option you would tick if you wanted to enjoy some tunes on your drive around town. And if you needed to get somewhere you weren't familiar with? You'd whip out a road map, or a route book, and figure out how to get there manually.
It's obviously a lost art in this day and age, but being able to plot your route and follow it on your travels was an important skill to have as a motorist if you wanted to venture beyond the boundaries of your neighbourhood or city. It was also the reason why motorists spent more time at highway rest stops (or rest houses, if you can remember them), to help get their bearings and plot their routes.
Head units in cars remained fairly stagnant - a radio reciever and a cassette player - through to the 1980s - but the 1980s saw the emergence of incredibly primitive navigation systems in Japanese cars from Toyota, Nissan, and Honda. This is before the era of global positioning satellites (GPS) navigation, so in order to show where you were you would quite literally need a set of scrolling map pages and what's known as dead reckoning technology - where the computer figures out where you are based on your steering and speed inputs.
Coming into the 1990s, we saw head units start to evolve as they took on different mediums - specifically CDs. It was pretty normal for a car to have a CD player, and higher end cars to have a deck of CDs you could manually load so you wouldn't have to swap them out if you wanted to listen to another album. We also saw the beginnings of GPS navigation, though most of the time you would have to use a standalone unit like something from GARMIN.
In fact, most of the time it was going to be a GARMIN unit until cheaper alternatives came to market. GARMIN systems went from being simple location tracking to having actual road maps and route guidance, though you would have to manually load in maps and update them if anything changed in the real world. Eventually, manufacturers caught up and had GPS navigation included as part of a car's standard features, though updating maps periodically was still necessary.
In the blink of an eye - from the late 2000s - we soon completely abandoned in-car navigation and GARMIN based units in favour of smartphone navigation. Smartphone apps such as Google Maps and Waze were always up to date, and more importantly they had traffic information polled from the movement of other users. This meant that not only could you plot a route between two points, you could find the most efficient in terms of time and offer you a variety of alternative routes.
Knowing that they would be beat on this front, manufacturers then chose to integrate their head units with smartphones rather than trying to increase standalone functionality. Car owners were already used to connecting via Bluetooth for audio and hands-free purposes, so this was the next natural step in its evolution - and the point that we're at today.