On a sunny November morning, Popular Science editor-in-chief Joe Brown gave two teams a mission known as the Amazon Grand Tour Navigation Challenge. They had to rely on a car-system app—Android Auto for the red team and Apple CarPlay for the blue team—to navigate through New York traffic, answer calls and texts via voice commands, and race to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, making a few unexpected detours along the way.
For the red team, editor Xavier Harding took the wheel while senior editor Sophie Bushwick took the passenger seat. On team blue, associate editor Claire Maldarelli drove and associate producer Jason Lederman rode shotgun. The prize at stake: the privilege of lording their triumph over their coworkers. Also a day off work. The teams hopped into twin 2017 Mercedes Benz E-Class sedans. From there, things got cutthroat.
On The Road
I had already loaded Android Auto onto my Samsung Galaxy S7, so I plugged my phone into the car’s USB port while Xavier adjusted the driver’s seat. Then I waited for the app to take over the Mercedes’ built-in system. Nothing happened.
I tried restarting the app. I tried restarting my phone. Finally, I resigned myself to navigating through the Mercedes’ labyrinthine built-in infotainment system. After getting stuck in a few dead ends, we found the screen where the car could access a third-party system, and I tapped the Android Auto option.
My phone’s screen went blank, displaying a black background with the Android Auto logo in white. Even when I pushed the home button, I couldn’t access any distracting apps. At the same time, a stylized landscape image appeared on the car’s screen. In front of it, I saw logos for menu items, such as the maps and phone calls. This wasn’t just a simplified version of my phone’s screen—it was a new, minimalist interface.
Using the manual controls on the car’s dashboard, I toggled from Android Auto’s home screen—which displays cards with information such as weather, current navigation instructions, and new text messages—to the maps page. Xavier pressed a microphone button on the steering wheel, and I told Android Auto to take us to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The destination appeared on the map, and we eased out of the parking garage and headed out.
From the beginning, Jason and I had our minds set on winning this competition, and we knew wasting time could cost us the game. As soon as we closed the doors of our dark blue Mercedes Benz, we plugged my iPhone 6 into the car. A CarPlay display quickly appeared on my screen and on the car’s display. I enabled CarPlay on my phone and soon after a version of my iOS appeared on the car’s screen.
CarPlay looks essentially like a replica of the standard iOS iPhone screen but with a limited number of apps. The Messages and Phone app had all my messages and contacts, including my voicemails from my mom that I hadn’t gotten a chance to listen to (sorry mom!).
We knew we were headed to Cold Spring Harbor National Laboratory, but we also knew we were also awaiting a text from Joe about how to begin the competition. He had already warned both teams that there would be detours along the route.
Challenge 1: Gas up
By the time we reached the Queens Midtown Tunnel, crawling in stop-and-go traffic, the sky had dimmed. Drizzle began to fall as we entered the tunnel and headed east out of Manhattan. When we emerged on the other side of the East River, an alert popped up on the car’s screen: a new text message from Joe.
I used the manual controls to toggle from the navigation screen to the home screen, scroll down to the message, and hit play. A mechanical voice recited Joe’s message: The car was running on empty, and we needed to stop for gas.
Xavier hit the microphone button again. “Um…ok Google, find gas?” I asked. A series of red dots popped up on the map. I used the manual controls to select the dot closest to us and add it as a stop along our route. The system quickly provided new directions—but they took us through slow-moving traffic.
After a few minutes on the road, deep in the insanity known as Manhattan traffic, we heard Siri’s robotic voice alert us, “You have a message from Joe Brown.” She asked us if we wanted to listen to it, I replied yes, and we heard that our car needed gas. We would have to make a pit stop before heading out to Cold Spring Harbor.
I quickly shifted into competition mode and manually opened Maps in CarPlay, using the display’s touchscreen. Under “Nearby” I found “Gas.” Booyah. I tapped it, and saw a list of the nearest gas stations in order of how close they were. I tapped the first one on the list and hit “get directions.” We were on our way to gas! Step one complete.
I can thank Apple Maps for how easy that step was. While driving in the middle of midtown Manhattan, I was able to easily use CarPlay to navigate my way through the iOS system, to Maps, and then to nearby gas, all without an ounce of infotainment system rage.
Challenge 2: Grab food
After threading through yet more traffic, we finally reached faster-moving cars on the road east. That’s when I heard another text alert. “Hey Sophie,” the system said, “not to detail you, but can you grab some lunch for the gang? Meatball subs would be good.” Just when we were realizing that “detail” was supposed to be “derail,” Android Auto prompted me to send a response. “Reply message,” I answered. “Meatball subs. I will get them.” The system repeated the message I was about to send—“Message meatball subs. It will get them”—and I figured it was close enough.
“Search meatball subs,” I told the system. Several restaurants, mostly Subway locations, appeared on screen. But before I could choose one, Xavier pointed out that Joe didn’t want just any old hoagie. He must be looking for a sub from his favorite sandwich joint, Parm.
I tapped the microphone logo on the screen. “Find Parm,” I said. Three different locations appeared—but two of them would require us to turn around and head back the way we had come. No way. Instead, I used the car’s dashboard to select the Parm south of us in Brooklyn and add it to the trip. According to the map, the fastest way to make this detour would require us to go back into Manhattan, make a U-turn, and head east again. That seemed backward to me, so I tried setting Parm as our new destination instead of as a detour. New, more sensible, directions appeared.
Even though the red team had avoided a return trip to Manhattan, we were still dealing with fairly heavy traffic and adding a lot of time to our trip—and I refused to let the blue team get ahead of us. So Xavier and I decided to call in our order to Parm so it would be ready when we arrived. “Call Parm,” I told the system. “Calling Parm on Mulberry Street,” it replied. “Wait, is that the right one?” I asked. I used the manual controls to hang up, then to search for the Parm in Brooklyn and click the phone icon. The sound quality of the call was good.
When Xavier pulled up to Parm, I ran in, grabbed our waiting sandwiches, and jumped back into the car. While I was in the restaurant, Xavier told me, he removed Parm from the navigation system and added “Cold Spring Harbor” as our new destination. Finally, we could focus on getting to the lab. As long as we remembered to keep listening for another text alert.
At this point, it was pouring outside, which really just adds to the fun of any driving competition. I texted Joe to let him know that our car was full of gas and we were ready for the next step. Jason and I sat patiently in the car and watched the rain.
A few minutes passed and still no text. My impatient, competitive side came roaring out, and I decided to call Joe to figure out what the holdup was. He told us that, before we could head out to Cold Spring Harbor, we had to get lunch. Specifically, we had to pick up sandwiches at Parm, an Italian sandwich chain in New York City.
I immediately activated Siri with the voice control button on my steering wheel. Her answer: “Found directions to Parma, Ohio.” Fail. I tried it again, this time over-pronouncing “Parrrrmmmm.” Again, she sent me to Ohio. Epic fail.
Since I was still pulled over at the gas station, I looked over at the CarPlay screen. Within Maps, I found the search button and manually typed in P-a-r-m. A few Parms quickly appeared and, just like the gas stations, I chose the closest one. I started up the directions and got on my way.
Because the Parm I chose (a mistake on my part, in hindsight) was located in Soho, it took us a while to get there through the heavy traffic and difficult street patterns. But eventually we made it to the restaurant, ordered our sandwiches, and got back in the car. We texted Joe and awaited his response.
Via the text-to-voice software, he told us (in Siri’s voice) that our next move was to make it to Cold Spring Harbor. Once there, we had to find Jones Laboratory, which has a statue of naturalist Charles Darwin in front of it. Whichever team high-fived Darwin first would win the race.
Challenge 3: Cold Spring Harbor
Despite the soothing scents of meatball, I was worried. The blue team had posted a Facebook Live video that showed they had picked up their food at least 10 minutes before we grabbed ours. The rain kept falling, and the vehicles around us seemed to move with snail-like deliberation. Even when the traffic sped up and the rain eased, it felt like we were miles behind the blue car (we didn’t realize they had picked up their sandwiches in Manhattan, which added time to their trip). Plus, we kept waiting for another text from Joe.
It arrived when we were about 15 minutes away from the lab. “Almost there! When you get to Cold Spring Harbor, proceed to the Jones Lab. First team to high-five the Darwin statue wins. Drive carefully!” This was it—no more detours! Xavier stepped on the gas, and we started to feel more confident.
“You have arrived at your destination,” the car told us. I looked at the residential street around us. I looked at Xavier. This was not the lab. When I checked the destination in the system, I saw “Cold Spring Harbor” the town, not “Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.” We had gone to the wrong place. I frantically asked the system to add the lab as a new destination, and Xavier turned the car around.
After we picked up our food, I was riding high. After seeing one of the red team’s Facebook Live videos, I truly believed that car was miles behind us. So I casually asked Siri for directions to Cold Spring Harbor National Laboratory. In true Siri fashion, she wrongly interpreted what I said and sent me somewhere in Manhattan. Knowing what to do by now, I manually typed in “Cold Spring Harbor.” This wasn’t a problem for me, because I was sitting in a parking spot in Soho. It would have been a much harder task if I were actively trying to stay focused on the road.
That last stretch was a difficult one, with highway merges and stretches of suburban areas. Finally, we saw a sign for Cold Spring Harbor and moved into the left-hand lane, ready to turn. The light turned, and we rolled onto the lab’s grounds.
As it turned out, we had overshot the correct destination, but we were just minutes from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Xavier pulled into the drive, and we swiveled our heads around, looking for a sign for Jones Lab.
“There!” I pointed. The slow speed limit of the lab’s roads felt unbearable as we turned a corner…and saw the blue car immediately ahead of us. Claire and Jason were running away from it, dashing across a broad lawn toward a statue of naturalist Charles Darwin. The precious minutes we’d wasted on our mistaken detour had lost us the contest.
Jason was the first one to spot a sign with Jones Laboratory on it. It indicated a slight right-hand turn. I turned and drove down a windy road until we saw a small building with a statue of Charles Darwin. I pulled up, and with no sign of the red car anywhere, I realized that Jason and I had just won the challenge.
We hopped out and sprinted to the statue. As we did, the red car approached. But it was too late. We high-fived the statue, securing a blue-team win. We were the champions.