Welcome to the iCar?
As Apple adapts to the automobile, we get a hands on with CarPlay
Apple’s iOS is the best mobile operating system currently available. Cars, of course, are the very definition of mobile. So, CarPlay sounds like a match made in technoheaven, right? After all, if you like iOS on your iPhone or iPad, wouldn’t it be great to have all your favourite apps and functionality, not to mention access to everything in your iCloud, in-car?
It’s a nice theory, but putting it into action isn’t going to be easy for Apple. For starters, human-machine interfaces in general are really hard to get right. That’s true for all kinds of devices from smartphones to desktop computers. Modern interfaces seem simple enough – stick a few menus and buttons on a touchscreen, and add some finger-swiping support – but making the whole thing responsive, intuitive and genuinely slick is actually a Herculean task. If we’re talking in-car multimedia systems, you start with that challenge and then add a whole new layer of problems, not least of which are safety and driver distraction (something which the rumoured Apple Car must also conquer). You can’t just throw the existing iOS interface and apps for iPhone onto a car’s multimedia screen.
That’s the context for Apple’s bold new CarPlay, a new technology that aims to bring the delights of iOS to your four-wheeled friend. However, it’s not all bad news for Apple and CarPlay. To understand why, we need to ask a couple of key questions. The most pressing of which is to ask: is it even realistic to expect each car manufacturer to come up with its own in-car multimedia platform complete with a fully honed human-machine interface?
LCD screens and digital human-machine interfaces for multimedia systems are not what car makers have spent the last century getting good at. Their expertise involves car bodies and suspension and engines. That’s not to say those companies are backward. Currently, there’s an explosion of technology and innovation in areas like active safety, driver aids and eco driving. Today’s collision detection and self-parking systems are likely to quickly transition into entirely autonomous cars sooner than many imagine. In fact, like Google, Apple appears to be working on one right now. But mobile operating systems are simply not a core competence for most car makers.
Even if they are up to the job, is that something any of us really want? In other words, if you’ve effectively signed up to and invested in the likes of iOS as a user, if you’ve integrated it into your life with contacts, messaging, social media, music streaming and other apps, do you really want to learn and manage a whole new ecosystem just for a car?
The tantalising alternative is something that allows you to seamlessly transition from your iPhone to the in-car system. No syncing of contacts, no downloading new apps, no learning a new interface. Instead, simply something you already know and love in a different context and with added extras. That’s what CarPlay offers on paper. But does it deliver? And how does it really function?
In really simple terms, CarPlay pipes iOS from your iPhone onto in-car screens. The interface and apps are running on your phone, making the car something akin to a huge monitor with
wheels and an engine. There are some downsides to that. You’ll need to plug your phone into the car, which can create cable clutter. And obviously you’ll need your phone with you. No phone, no CarPlay.
There are essentially two ways to get CarPlay in your car. It can either be built in at the factory or you can add a compatible head unit. The roster of car companies which have announced CarPlay support is rather impressive. In fact, it’s nearly all of the big brands: Audi, BMW, Citroen, Ferrari, Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota – and that’s just the highlights. In short, it looks like nearly everyone is getting on board with Apple’s system.
The very first UK cars with factory-fitted CarPlay support should begin to appear later this year. In the meantime, the alternative is to fit a new ‘head unit’ with CarPlay support from a thirdparty manufacturer like Pioneer. To be clear, this isn't possible in every car. Increasingly, manufacturers are integrating multimedia features in such a way that aftermarket upgrades are essentially impossible.
If you have a car with what’s known as a standard double-DIN slot or which can be modified to have one, you’re in business. Whether it makes a difference as to CarPlay being integrated or aftermarket, there are a few points to bear in mind.