A closer look at how Apple’s CarPlay works, and its potential impact on in-car Android

Apple rolled out its CarPlay iPhone connection for cars at the Geneva Motor Show this week with Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo demonstrating the application, and 13 other automakers also signed on to ship “down the road,” as Apple copywriters put it. CarPlay replicates the iPhone interface on the car’s centre stack display, uses the car’s built-in controls, and takes orders from Siri as well. It goes far beyond Siri Eyes Free.

How it works, what you get

Any car with a USB jack or streaming Bluetooth is capable of playing music and hands-free calling from an iPhone. CarPlay adds significant robustness through the replication of the iPhone display on the centre stack display, and the ability to call on more of the functionality of your phone.

Apple Maps is supported for navigation. Apple says CarPlay intuits possible destinations from recent calls and messages you’ve gotten. Free navigation from your iPhone might make it tough for automakers to charge more than a couple hundred quid for built-in navigation.

If a car costs less than, say, around £15,000, some automakers might just give up. They’ll be stuck with the cost of putting in an LCD display, but they may be stuck with unsold cars if they don’t and the competition does.

Apple says CarPlay provides access to music, podcasts, and audiobooks, as before with simpler USB or Bluetooth connections. CarPlay supports iTunes Radio as well as selected third-party apps, such as Beats Radio, iHeart Radio, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Critical mass for CarPlay on day one

CarPlay is a sudden rebranding of Apple’s iOS in the Car rolled out at Apple’s June 2013 Worldwide Developer Conference. The term is a play on AirPlay, Apple’s system to stream audio, video, images and web content through the house.

Who’s on board among automakers? Just about everybody. In addition to the trio of Ferrari, Mercedes and Volvo (see the photo above) featured at the Geneva Motor Show, others with announced plans include BMW Group, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai Motor Company, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia Motors, Mitsubishi Motors, Nissan Motor Company, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Subaru, Suzuki and Toyota Motor Corp. Since most have multiple brands, it’s more than two dozen car brands. The biggest name missing is Volkswagen Group, the world’s number three automaker, which also includes Audi, Bentley and Porsche.

Is Android in trouble? Hardly

No automaker wants to be locked into a single smartphone operating system. None can ignore Android, since it has more market share than Apple, albeit spread across multiple brands with slight differences that drive compatibility testers crazy. Mercedes-Benz announced CarPlay will debut this year in the new 2015 C-Class (see the photo below), and made pointed reference to Google. In the first paragraph of the C-Class release, Mercedes said: “As soon as Google brings its own in-car infotainment system to market, Mercedes-Benz customers will also be able to enjoy the world of Android in their cars.”

If Google and Android are doing okay, the advance of sophisticated car-to-smartphone links puts pressure on Microsoft Windows Phone and BlackBerry. If they don’t match what iOS and Android phone makers offer in car-phone relationships, their sales will slump further. At least BlackBerry got smart buying the QNX operating system, which is the market leader for in-car operating systems, followed by Microsoft, which recently lost the Ford Sync business to BlackBerry and QNX.

What’s missing

Real life is never as good as the press release. There are issues users need to consider before making a deposit on a new Volvo or Benz. For starters, you’ll need iOS 7, probably not a problem since bug fixes and security scares make those upgrades near mandatory. You will need a Lightning connector phone, currently the iPhone 5S, iPhone 5C and iPhone 5. Apple did not say if the iPad (4th generation), iPad mini, and iPad Air are on the compatibility list.

Automakers with their own voice input systems will have to work out a protocol for how the voice button on the steering wheel works. Typically, a short button press activates the car’s recogniser, and a long press activates Siri.

It’s not clear about the fate of all your iPhone apps that Apple isn’t supporting for CarPlay. Apple’s press release chirps: “CarPlay brings your car and iPhone together for a thoughtful experience that lets drivers focus on driving, while also tapping into everything they want to do with their iPhone.” It’s unclear if Apple and the automaker will agree on your definition of “everything.”

If CarPlay is anything like Siri Eyes Free (Siri voice control of iPhone apps), once your phone is connected to the car, the phone’s touchscreen goes dead and apps not supported by Eyes Free are inaccessible unless you unpair the phone. Some of that is for your safety. Obviously, you shouldn’t be watching a video on the centre stack or playing a game. That something like Google Maps perhaps isn’t part of CarPlay, that’s the near-term price of progress. Car navigation as well as Siri Eyes Free currently don’t unlock additional functionality when there’s someone sitting in the passenger seat. In other words, if you can only type in a destination when the car is standing still, that won’t change even if the occupancy sensor knows there’s a passenger on-board.

In its release, Apple says: “When incoming messages or notifications arrive, Siri provides an eyes-free experience by responding to requests through voice commands, by reading drivers’ messages and letting them dictate responses or simply make a call.” It’s unclear how much screen display support you’ll get, such as seeing a draft of a message.

A minor issue may be how well CarPlay handles multiple information screens. An increasing number of cars have a 3in or 4in multi-information display (MID) in the instrument panel; a handful have head-up displays. Those currently show simplified maps, audio information, and caller ID info.

As with most advances in car technology, almost none of this is expected to be backwards compatible. In most cases, to use CarPlay, you’ll need a new car.