What Is CarPlay: Putting Apple's Auto Software to the Test

 Putting Apple's Auto Software to the Test

Of all of Apple’s products and services, CarPlay is one of the least talked about and understood. Announced at the Worldwide Developers Conference in 2013 and released in 2014, Apple CarPlay allows users to operate their iPhones using compatible cars’ built-in displays. CarPlay is available in around a hundred new car models from top manufacturers and is poised to become a critical part of Apple’s ecosystem in the coming years. Our smartphones have become the center of our digital lives, and how cars interact with our phones is now a critical component of any auto maker's operating system. Experts from Morgan Stanley estimate that a car’s software comprises about 10 percent of its total value, but they predict that number will grow to upwards of 60 percent within the next decade. CarPlay is Apple’s bid to control that user experience and thereby make itself essential to every car’s operating system. In addition, Apple is rumored to be creating its own car. If this is true, CarPlay will almost certainly serve as the foundation for Apple’s own automobile plans. Part of the reason why CarPlay hasn’t caught on is that you must have a 2014 or later car by select manufacturers in order to use it. There are, however, a few CarPlay aftermarket solutions for those of us who can’t afford a brand new luxury automobile. In order to give CarPlay a test drive, I installed a Pioneer brand CarPlay aftermarket system with touchscreen display in my car. 

CarPlay Aftermarket System Reviewed: Pioneer AVH-4100NEX ($700) 

Master your iPhone in one minute a day:

Sign up to iPhone Life's Tip of the Day Newsletter and we'll send you a tip each day to save time and get the most out of your iPhone or iPad.

Master your iPhone in one minute a day:

Sign up to iPhone Life's Tip of the Day Newsletter and we'll send you a tip each day to save time and get the most out of your iPhone or iPad.

How to Use CarPlay

To start using CarPlay, plug your iPhone into a lightning cable connected to your car’s display unit. (Apple has announced that the next generation of CarPlay will work via Bluetooth and won’t require you to dock the phone.) Once your iPhone is connected, the CarPlay interface will appear on your dash’s display. The CarPlay interface looks very similar to any other iOS device, with a selection of Apple’s built-in apps appearing in a familiar grid. Using CarPlay feels a bit like you have an iPad strapped to your car’s dashboard (but in a good way). While many CarPlay apps are the same one found on your iPhone, with the same icons and a similar look and feel, Apple has redesigned the user interface to allow you to efficiently use each CarPlay app while driving. Siri is one of the primary ways to navigate CarPlay, allowing you to keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. In Apple’s own words: “Reading and writing is now listening and dictating. Siri can send, read, and reply to your text messages for you.” Siri also allows you to make phone calls, get directions, and play music. In addition to Apple’s stock apps (Music, Maps, Phone, Messages, Podcasts, and Audio Books) Apple has partnered with a few third-party developers including Pandora, Spotify, and Audible to make CarPlay apps.

The Pros 

Safety

The most important advantage of CarPlay is that it is much safer than using your iPhone while driving. According to a recent study commissioned by AT&T, 70 percent of drivers in the US use their smartphones while driving. Simultaneously, texting while driving has become the leading cause of death among teenagers in the US, according to a study by the Cohen Children’s Medical Center. While awareness campaigns such as Oprah’s No Phone Zone discourage us from using phones in the car, finding safe ways to interact with your device while driving may be a more effective solution. While CarPlay can still be a little distracting, and certainly isn’t the perfect solution, it is a huge step in the right direction.

Convenience

CarPlay makes a significant difference in my driving experience. Being able to navigate CarPlay apps through Siri and see everything on a large touchscreen embedded in your dash works together to make the user experience much more convenient than using an iPhone while driving. While hypothetically Siri allows you to use your iPhone hands free, I inevitably reach a point where I have to select something on screen. I find that this happens much less frequently with CarPlay, because all of the CarPlay apps are built from the ground up to be used while driving. And when it does happen, being able to see my options on a large screen on my dashboard is much less distracting (and safer) than trying to use my iPhone.

User Experience

While convenience and safety are benefits of all car dashboard units, it’s the user experience that makes Apple CarPlay stand out. I’ve used quite a few car dashboard operating systems and have always found them unintuitive and difficult to use. Conversely, if you’ve used an iPhone or iPad, understanding how to use CarPlay will be immediately intuitive to you. One of Apple’s unofficial product mantras has always been “it just works,” and with CarPlay, it really does. The Siri integration in particular is very well done. Almost every CarPlay app can be navigated with Siri, which makes a huge difference while driving.

The Cons 

Missing Features

These are still the early days of CarPlay, and it doesn’t yet feel like a fully functional operating system. In particular, there are three glaring omissions that Apple will need to add to future versions. Perhaps the biggest weakness is that there is no third-party CarPlay app store. While Apple has partnered with several of the most relevant third-party app developers for drivers including Spotify, Pandora, and Audible, the list of CarPlay apps is still very small and doesn’t include apps such as Waze and Google Maps. The second omission from CarPlay is Siri voice activation. With the iPhone 6s, you no longer need to push a button to ask Siri a question; instead you can simply say “Hey Siri.” Being able to access Siri without having to take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road would be very useful, and its absence is fairly surprising. The third thing that is missing from CarPlay is Bluetooth compatibility. In order to use CarPlay, you currently have to plug your device in, which not only takes up precious seconds when getting in my car, but also means there is an ugly lightning cable draped across my passenger seat. Apple, however, has already announced that future versions of CarPlay will be Bluetooth compatible.

Still Buggy

While CarPlay is intuitive to use, it is still lacking the polish of Apple’s more mature operating systems. When I dock my phone in my car, it sometimes has a hard time connecting to CarPlay, and there are even times when I can’t play music or make a call. I can usually fix these bugs by disconnecting my phone and reconnecting it, but that’s easier said than done if I’ve already started driving. Bugs like this are common in early versions of software and will surely be ironed out in future editions, but for now they are a bit tedious.

Limited Functionality

As soon as I started using CarPlay, it became obvious to me why Apple is exploring making a car. One of the core tenets of Apple’s philosophy is having end-to-end control of its products. With CarPlay, Apple is giving up that control to the auto manufacturer. CarPlay can only control the phone. You can’t access any of the car’s core functionality without switching to the car manufacturer’s OS. With an Apple Car, you’d be able to not only use Siri to make phone calls and control your music, but also to turn down the air conditioner or turn on your windshield wipers. Without end-to-end integration, CarPlay will continue to be limited in functionality.

How to Get CarPlay

CarPlay is currently available in more than a hundred new car models. If you want to use CarPlay but don’t want to buy a newer vehicle, you can have an aftermarket unit installed in your car. Pioneer, for instance, offers a line of CarPlay-compatible display screens starting at $600 (plus installation). My Pioneer AVIC-4100NEX unit has a seven-inch touchscreen and can play DVDs. The unit fit nicely in my dashboard, and while it looks way too fancy for my old car, it is great to have. If you have long commutes to work or you go on frequent road trips, it’s worth looking into an aftermarket solution.

Only the Beginning

After using CarPlay for more than a month, I can definitely say that I am a safer driver. I am also more receptive to the idea of an Apple Car. These are early days, and CarPlay still has a long way to go, but it has the potential to be a significant product for Apple and maybe even the foundation for an Apple Car. It may be a long way off, but I look forward to the day when Siri not only gives me directions but also drives me to my destination while I watch a movie or play 2048 on my phone. 

Master your iPhone in one minute a day: Sign up here to get our FREE Tip of the Day delivered right to your inbox.
David Averbach's picture

David Averbach is the CEO and Publisher of iPhone Life magazine and winner of FOLIO magazine's 2014 media industry's innovators 20 in Their 20's. David Co-hosts the iPhone Life Podcast, and has an obsession with all things Apple. He grew up on Macs and now has a MacBook Pro, iPhone, iPad Pro, Apple Watch, Homepod, Apple TV, and Airpods. David enjoys traveling and a good cup of coffee. He has been to over 25 countries.

To contact David, email him at david@iphonelife.com.