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What is CarPlay?

Apple CarPlay is the company's standard for connecting an iPhone or iPad to the infotainment unit of a vehicle. By doing so, this allows the driver and passengers to augment functions from an iOS device with the entertainment system, replacing the existing interface and functions with an iOS-inspired screen. 

For example, the car's navigation system is replaced by Apple Maps, which can take advantage of addresses from calendars, emails, messages, and contacts to try and predict where the driver may want to travel to, providing prompts on the infotainment unit's screen with suggested destinations. The power of Apple Maps can also be used to search for nearby gas stations, coffee shops, and other facilities during a journey. 

By connecting to the iPhone, CarPlay allows the car itself to turn into a speakerphone, allowing hands-free calling and answering, and extra in-call controls. Text messages received through iMessage can be read out, or audio messages played, with the option to continue the conversation by dictating a reply. 

Podcasts and iTunes content stored on the connected iOS device is available to browse and play through the entertainment system, using the car's media controls. Subscribers of Apple Music can access the service while on the move, with other audio apps also accessible using CarPlay, including Spotify, Slacker Radio, Pandora, and NPR One. 

Drivers are also able to invoke Siri behind the wheel, usually by pressing a voice control button, allowing all of CarPlay's functions to be accessible without interfering with driving. As with iPhones, requests for Siri can be made to place calls, respond to messages, and to play music, among other functions, and is the core way for drivers to interact with CarPlay. 

While CarPlay does allow access to an iPhone’s functions, it is worth noting that it isn’t an operating system for a car’s entertainment unit, and cannot be used independently of an iOS device. A connection with a host device is required in order to make it work, and apps cannot be installed onto CarPlay like they can on an iPhone or iPad. 

 

CarPlay setup

Apple advises CarPlay can be used with the iPhone 5, as well as all later iPhone model releases. While it will work best with newer releases of iOS, it is possible to use an iPhone running iOS 7.1 with CarPlay. 

In the majority of cases, users need to connect their iPhone to the vehicle using a Lightning-to-USB cable, with some car manufacturers identifying a designated CarPlay USB port with a symbol. After making the physical connection for the first time, the user must confirm they wish for CarPlay to access data stored on the iPhone, with later connections automatically invoking the CarPlay interface. 

For some setups, it is also possible to set up CarPlay wirelessly, allowing it to work over Bluetooth instead of requiring the cable. This can be set up within the General section of Settings on the iPhone, where an option for CarPlay will offer a list of vehicles the iPhone can communicate with. 

 

 

Controls and Siri

There are three main ways to interact with CarPlay once it has established the connection with the iPhone. For safety while driving, as well as to obey laws relating to mobile phone usage while behind the wheel, CarPlay can only be used through the car’s infotainment system, and not via the iPhone itself. 

The first way is to use the existing controls used by the infotainment unit. Buttons and knobs can be moved to change settings within CarPlay, in a similar way to other standard functions of the entertainment system, and can also extend to media controls located near or on the steering wheel. 

If the entertainment system uses a touchscreen, CarPlay functions can also be accessed by tapping this display. This may be the most intuitive way of using CarPlay, due to being similar to how an iPhone or iPad functions, though in-app navigation will be simplified compared to normal iOS apps in order to account for the car’s motion. 

Lastly, drivers can also interact with CarPlay using Siri, by holding down the home button on the CarPlay home screen until hearing a beep, then making a request. In some vehicles, drivers can also trigger Siri by holding down a voice control button on the steering wheel, until the beep sounds. 

As with the version on iPhones, Siri can respond to a wide variety of questions, such as the current time or if a certain store is open. As the driver can only hear responses and cannot be distracted by looking at a screen, Siri cannot provide answers to web queries that have long answers or would normally refer the user to searches. 

Siri can also be used to perform a variety of actions, including those relating to calls, messages, music, and navigation. It is even possible to request actions for third-party CarPlay-supporting apps through Siri.  

 

Third-Party Apps

While Apple offers support for many important functions within CarPlay, including music playback, navigation, messaging, and access to Siri, developers are able to add support for CarPlay within their own apps. Apple's developer resources contains a number of guides to help add this functionality to iOS apps. 

Due to the nature of driving, Apple's guidelines highlight a need for developers to make interactions with the driver as brief as possible, and to "never command the driver's attention." Voice interaction using Siri is encouraged, due to not needing the driver to let go of the steering wheel, while on-screen information should be "minimal, relevant, and requires little decision making" by the driver. 

The majority of popular third-party CarPlay apps are, as one would expect, audio related. Competitors to Apple Music, including Spotify and Pandora, offer access to their streaming music services through the vehicle's infotainment interface using CarPlay, instead of forcing users to change playlists and songs using their iPhone.  

Individual broadcasters have also taken advantage of CarPlay to provide their content in vehicles without using traditional broadcast radio services, with apps including NPR One and MLB At Bat providing on-demand streams of popular shows. Listeners of podcasts are also covered, with Overcast and Castro among the more popular apps available today. 

While messaging apps are obviously not as easily accessible with CarPlay, some functionality can be used by some services. Apps including Skype and Facebook Messenger support Apple's CallKit framework, which allows incoming calls from services to behave similar to iOS' built-in Phone app on the lockscreen. This framework also works with CarPlay, so messaging app calls can be handled while driving in the same way as normal phone calls. 

 

NPR One on CarPlay NPR One on CarPlay

 

CarPlay Updates

In iOS 10.3, CarPlay was updated to make it easier for users to switch between apps. Replacing a small permanent link to Apple Maps, the left menu now shows a set of three icons, based on how recently they were used within CarPlay or when the host iPhone is used away from the vehicle. 

While this may seem to show the last three apps used, including third-party apps compatible with CarPlay, there are some caveats to what apps are highlighted in this task switcher. 

One of the icons will always be for Apple Maps, with its position set based on its usage compared to the other two apps. A second spot is taken up by either Apple's native Phone or Messages app, again depending on which one was used last, with the Phone icon also showing the current call time below. 

The remaining app highlighted in the switcher is effectively the most recently used app, taking into account the apps occupying the other two spots. 

Limitations

While CarPlay could be seen as an improvement on existing car infotainment options, it is worth noting that the majority of the features it provides lean heavily on the connected iPhone. Some car elements that can be controlled via the standard entertainment system software are unable to be altered within CarPlay.

For example, a driver cannot ask Siri to turn on or change the temperature of the air conditioning system. While online radio station streams can be accessed within CarPlay apps, the built-in car radio system is inaccessible within CarPlay. 

To get around this restriction, car manufacturers usually include a way to temporarily access the entertainment system's standard menu to make the changes. A pre-existing voice control system can also be used for similar tasks that Siri is unable to accomplish. 

 

Car manufacturers supporting CarPlay

Most of the major car manufacturers include options for CarPlay support in their vehicles, with over 200 models to choose from that either currently have it or are planned to gain support in the future.

Apple provides an up-to-date list of models with CarPlay support on its website for 35 car producers, noting in many cases if CarPlay is available in last year's model as well as this year's version. 

Potential car buyers do need to bear in mind that the list only covers models that could have a CarPlay-enabled infotainment unit, as it may only be available in an upgraded entertainment package, or in certain grades of model. For example, Honda's 2018 Accord announcement in July advises CarPlay will be standard on the 2.0T trim, but optional on the 1.5T and Hybrid models. 

For those wanting CarPlay but got the wrong package with their vehicle, there is still another way to get it without resorting to an aftermarket solution. A small number of car producers, primarily Kia and Hyundai, are providing retroactive upgrades for CarPlay, updating the in-car entertainment system's software to get it going. 

In March, Mazda became one of the last major manufacturers to confirm it will support CarPlay in its vehicles sometime in 2017. At the same time, it added its name to the short list of companies providing retroactive upgrades for earlier models, with cars sporting a Mazda Connect system able to use CarPlay, with "potentially minimal hardware addition needed" for it to work.

Ford issued a software update for its 2016-model vehicles equipped with SYNC 3, adding support for CarPlay to the entertainment systems. While it can be updated via a dealership or USB, notably cars with Wi-Fi hotspots were able to recieve the update wirelessly for the first time. 

Commercial vehicle drivers could also find themselves being able to take advantage of CarPlay in the future. Believed to be the first non-consumer vehicle producer to do so, the Swedish semi truck producer Scania will be including support in its infotainment systems for new trucks shipping in June, with units in older models also likely to be upgraded if they support voice control. 

In July 2017, Volvo confirmed it was including CarPlay in upgraded configurations of its newly-launched VNL line of semi trucks. CarPlay comes as part of an infotainment package that includes a 7-inch touchscreen, "premium" audio system, back-up camera, and navigation system. 

One notable exception to the manufacturer's list is Toyota, one of the world's biggest auto producers. While its competitors have adopted CarPlay support in their infotainment systems, Toyota continues to actively refuse to use CarPlay, in favor of using its own in-house platform. 

 

Aftermarket options

CarPlay is not just limited to the entertainment systems included in new vehicles, as a number of head unit manufacturers are offering after-market upgrades for older vehicles, adding support for CarPlay and other extra functions. 

During this year’s CES in January, Alpine revealed the iLX-107 in-dash receiver, a head unit intended to launch in February for $900 but slipped to late June. Offering wireless connectivity with an iPhone over 5GHz Wi-Fi, it uses a 7-inch display, can retain select factory vehicle features with an additional module, and also allows users to custom tune the sound it produces with Alpine’s TuneIt app. 

Clarion’s NX807 sports a 7-inch WVGA touchscreen and CarPlay support, with a $900 price tag. Aside from CarPlay, the head unit also boasts a four-channel 50-watt amplifier, lossless audio file playback, and smartphone screen mirroring through HDMI. 

Released late last year, the Sony XAV-AX100 is a more moderately priced model at $500, with a slightly smaller 6.4-inch touchscreen. Providing 55 watts of output, the unit can be connected to external amplifiers, and has rear camera support. 

Pioneer unveiled its 2017 NEX collection of head units in May, with four double-DIN devices equipped with 7-inch and 6.2-inch displays, and a fifth single-DIN receiver with a motorized 7-inch screen meant for older vehicles. 

 

CarPlay competitors

Some major car manufacturers use their own custom software for their in-car entertainment system, for example Ford’s Sync, BMW ConnectedDrive, and Cadillac’s Cue. While these will vary between manufacturer in terms of features, many do offer smartphone-related functionality, including call answering and hands-free messaging. 

While this does give drivers an alternative to CarPlay, one that works across multiple different types of smartphone, iPhone users may prefer to use CarPlay as an interface instead. 

Android device owners have their own version of CarPlay, in the form of Android Auto. Working in a similar way, Android Auto allows drivers to connect their Android smartphone to the vehicle’s entertainment system and use many of the features from their mobile device, including Google Maps, and Google Voice Search instead of Siri. 

Since CarPlay only works for iOS devices while Android Auto functions only with Android smartphones, it’s probably better not to think of the two platforms as competitors, more as ways for drivers to take advantage of their smartphone’s features, regardless of operating system. 

In many cases, both for the car manufacturer’s own infotainment system and aftermarket solutions, both CarPlay and Android Auto are supported in the same head unit. 

Despite the usefulness of CarPlay, car manufacturers are slowly working to create a separate connectivity system that will work with all devices. The SmartDeviceLink Consortium, which counts Ford, Toyota, Mazda, Suzuki, and others in its membership, aims to create an open platform that allows mobile devices to connect with the entertainment system, but in a way that keeps the car producers in control. 

Unlike CarPlay, which uses the iPhone to perform most tasks while using the entertainment unit as an interface, the consortium wants to instead bring as much of the processing as possible into the car’s system, leaving connected smartphones as a terminal for data transfers and calls. The platform will also allow manufacturers to maintain control of how the interface looks and functions, rather than replacing it with CarPlay’s user interface. 

So far, Ford has been the biggest supporter of SmartDeviceLink, pushing it as an industry standard while still providing CarPlay and Android Auto support in its systems. 

 

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