Apple unveils CarPlay — hopefully cars are about to get smart

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Apple finally unveiled more of its plans to bring iOS into the car with what it is now calling CarPlay.

CarPlay will allow iPhone users to plug their iPhones directly into a car and use iOS to control their cars navigation and radio, while also providing hands-free calling and texting support. What is exciting about this isn’t what you can do with it, but rather that it comes from a company that develops some of the best software and user interfaces anywhere in the world. Car navigation and entertainment systems are notoriously bad, and the fancy ones with touchscreens and GPSes are usually over-priced messes.

Users will also be using the same apps in the car that they have on their phones. This will give users less to learn and make the experience more seamless. The idea of having a separate digital life for the car never made any sense, and car makers aren’t good at writing consumer software.

Smartphones are powerful personal computers with lots of wireless radios. In the past that power sat idle while users were forced to use poorly implemented systems by car manufacturers.

What are the advantages of this over getting one of the many navigation and entertainment options already available directly by car manufactures?

  • Always have what you need — Our phones are our personal assistants. They are truly personal computers. We have them loaded up with our favorite apps and our preferences. Why have a totally separate solution for the car? Why not plug in a device that already has everything you need right on it? Your music. You maps with your favorite places already in it. Your contacts. It just makes sense to have one device that you can always have on you.
  • Voice, touch or knob control — CarPlay gives you Siri voice control in the car. Very few cars have voice control, and the ones that do don’t have very good voice control. You’ll be able to send text messages with your voice, control your audio apps and control your navigation and more with just your voice. This may be the first good hands-free technology to go into cars. But CarPlay cars will also come with touchscreens, a natural fit for iOS and the apps that will integrate into CarPlay. Most cars, even if they have a touchscreen, still have knob fallbacks for temperature and audio, and these knobs will work with CarPlay. Users will be given a variety of ways to control what they are doing, and the different input methods will fit in nicely depending on if a driver is stopped or moving (or has a passenger).
  • Maps are constantly updated, improved and have real-time data — Navigation systems in cars are notoriously poor because they go out of date over time, and they aren’t connected to real-time data — both because of a lack of a data connection. CarPlay will give you navigation with real-time traffic data and alternative routes. It will also give you the ability to find restaurants and other landmarks, something that many dedicated GPSes already do, but these will again be updated. What’s the point of having a list of restaurants and coffee shops from seven years ago? Apple Maps has Yelp integration, which is very handy for finding good restaurants, the hours of restaurants and even telling you if a restaurant is still in business.
  • Radio is dead — CarPlay will allow you to control your favorite audio apps. While you can currently hook up an iPhone to a car stereo through an auxiliary input, that makes controlling the audio very difficult and at times dangerous. Now you’ll be able to control your favorite audio apps in a much more native and seamless way in the car. I’m looking forward to being able to natively control Spotify, Downcast and Audible in the car. Cars are probably the only thing keeping FM radio on life support, and that’s only because streaming audio hasn’t been integrated well into cars. That’s about to change in a big way.

The devil will be in the details, however. Apple will have to deliver a level of stability and reliability that they haven’t with their recent operating system software. iOS 7 was launched almost six months ago, and it’s still buggy. We’re all desperately waiting for the iOS 7.1 update to refine the OS and tackle some major bugs.

OS X Mavericks is getting more refined, but it too could use some more work. The difference here is that an occasional app crash or even system crash isn’t a huge issue with a smartphone or even a PC, but it would be a big deal if it happened in the middle of driving a car.  Apple will need to deliver a level of refinement and stability for CarPly that they haven’t with some of their other software.


Here is Volvo’s video introducing CarPlay for their cars.

The quality of Apple Maps is also a concern. It has improved considerably since launch, and it’s reputation is probably no longer deserved, but it does lag behind Google Maps — at least in car-based navigation. I prefer Apple Maps on foot, but Apple CarPlay is all about the car.

Apple needs to make a big commitment to making their maps app as good as any mapping solution out there. Beyond that, it would be nice to allow third-party maps apps work as well. Not just Google Maps, but specialized navigation apps for when you’re visiting a national park, for instance, or maps that provide guided tours of cities.

Apple is allowing a variety of music and podcast apps to work through CarPlay, so I have hope that we’ll see additional navigation options in the future. And maybe CarPlay is another sign that Apple is taking mapping seriously.

With an expanding family and an aging car, I’ll be looking to get a new car within the next few years. Any car that doesn’t support CarPlay (and without a several-thousand dollar upgrade) will automatically be off my list. I’m tired of driving dumb cars that have bad navigation systems and even worse audio options.

Let’s make cars smarter.