The real battle Apple is waging in autos

Amid speculation over whether Apple's increased investment in automobiles could ultimately lead to an iCar, many are overlooking the big battle that's already taking shape in the auto industry: Who will win drivers' time behind the wheel?

Think of your car as the last major untapped frontier when it comes to mobility and connectivity.The two primary players fighting for your time, attention and purchasing power are Apple, which introduced its Carplay system last year, and Google, which created Android Auto.

And guess what? These guys are just getting started.

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"I've seen both systems displayed in a variety of vehicles and both are just scratching the surface in terms of market penetration," said Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst of infotainment for IHS Automotive.

The new Apple CarPlay touch-screen in the Volvo Estate concept car.
Fabrice Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images
The new Apple CarPlay touch-screen in the Volvo Estate concept car.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are driving toward greater penetration in the auto industry's "phone projection" market, which takes the capabilities of a driver's phone and runs them seamlessly through their car.

"They want your eyes, your purchase intent and so many other things in the hour or two you are driving," Boyadjis said.

IHS Automotive estimates approximately 600,000 vehicles worldwide were integrated with phone projection systems in 2014. Considering global auto sales last year topped 88 million vehicles, that's still a drop in the bucket seats.

That will change rapidly.

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By 2017, 40 million vehicles will be connected to systems such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Boyadjis said. He sees that number skyrocketing to a projected 250 million cars in 2020.

"These systems are going to explode in popularity," he said.

A presenter demonstrates Android Auto on stage during the Google I/O Developers Conference at Moscone Center on June 25, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
Getty Images
A presenter demonstrates Android Auto on stage during the Google I/O Developers Conference at Moscone Center on June 25, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

As automakers start to incorporate autopilot and autonomous-drive systems into their new models, the big push in the industry will be selling drivers on the idea of staying connected behind the wheel.

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, Mercedes-Benz showed a concept car that incorporated Web-connected touchscreen panels into the doors, which can pull in exterior views from 360-degree view cameras.

Read MorePay attention! Your car is watching you

For its part, Apple is doing far more to keep drivers connected than simply push advanced versions of CarPlay.

And while Google has said it has no interest in building vehicles, it remains to be seen whether that's true for Apple. (The tech firm declined comment to CNBC last week about whether it's working on an electric car.)

Regardless, with the auto industry on the verge of a major technological shake-up, it's no surprise Apple is one of the companies stirring thing up.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.