This dongle can upgrade you to wireless CarPlay for cheap
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Wireless CarPlay is still scarce, but there is a way for existing CarPlay users to break free of wires inexpensively, and we've been testing it for months now.
2021 update: CPLAY2air has ceased operations. Amazon carries a number of alternative wireless adapters, and you can filter the results based on your vehicle's make and model.
Editor's note: We stumbled across this dongle some time ago. In the three months since we originally published this piece, we've had questions about it, and we've had more time to test it in more conditions.
Wired CarPlay is near-ubiquitous among newer vehicles, with only a few recently making the jump to wireless. Ford announced several vehicles will go wireless with a new Sync 4 update and Uconnect 5 from FCA will also bring wireless CarPlay to a massive number of vehicles.
Unfortunately, that leaves everyone else out in the cold currently relying on their existing wired CarPlay setups. Typically, the only real cost-effective ways to get wireless CarPlay is to wait until you step up to a new vehicle or pony up some big cash for an aftermarket head unit, such as the Pioneer AVH-W4400NEX receiver we tested. But, an after-market solution can sometimes cause problems with integrated electronics, like backup cameras or remote starter systems.
Fortunately, we've recently stumbled upon a middle ground. There is a way to achieve wireless CarPlay without a replacement receiver and without a new vehicle.
Hack your way to wireless CarPlay
We managed to do this with an external USB box that essentially "tricks" your vehicle into thinking your iPhone is plugged in. There are several versions of this device floating around online though the one we picked up is called CarPlay2Air.
This device connects to your car's USB port that is used for CarPlay. The vehicle then registers this as a CarPlay device. Your iPhone sees this new external receiver as a CarPlay device and will connect to it wirelessly.
What this amounts to in the end, at least today, is seamless, wireless CarPlay.
With the adapter installed, wireless CarPlay works like any other official solution. You get in the vehicle, as soon as it boots up, your phone will automatically connect to your infotainment system.
A new loading screen appears for a few moments as your phone connects. This is the one difference between this solution and an official solution.
Wireless CarPlay brings several benefits. Your iPhone's battery life gets displayed on your infotainment screen which leaves you free to keep the phone in your pocket or purse. Fiddly wires become a thing of the past.
Best of all, you can finally use a wireless charger. We hit the road often and have destroyed Lightning cables because a small amount of water has gotten on the pins. A bad Lightning cable means no CarPlay.
Quarrles and quibbles
Not everything is perfect with these wireless CarPlay adapters.
Occasionally when we would use remote start, upon entering the vehicle CarPlay would not automatically connect per usual. This requires us to unplug and re-plug the CarPlay adapter to get it working again. That said, we have also had similar issues with manufacturer installed and third-party wireless CarPlay units so it is hard to peg who's at fault conclusively, in this regard.
There have also been many reports as of late of issues with wireless CarPlay on recent versions of iOS. Again, it makes it hard to particularly different to discern if iOS, the receiver, or the CarPlay adapter are the ones causing this occasional hiccups.
Only a hack
The bigger issue at play is that these aren't much more than a hack and are in no way supported by Apple. Going forward, there is no guarantee that a new version of iOS doesn't deploy that completely kills how they work. The same goes for many customer-driven projects such as HomeBridge for connecting non-certified accessories to HomeKit.
It is a gamble, but some users — like me — see the benefit of that risk for a feature that isn't being delivered by auto manufacturers.
All we know is that these wireless CarPlay adapters — at least the one we tried — work for now. Here's hoping they stay that way.
AppleInsider has further reached out to the CarPlay2Air developer for additional clarification on how the adapter works.
According to them, the adapter isn't so much a "hack" as it is a clever piece of engineering. The dongle is mimicking a legitimate CarPlay receiver so the only way that this would be disabled is if other all CarPlay receivers were also broken.
While we can't entirely confirm on our own how the intricacies work of the adapter, this does give us more relief that this piece of hardware won't be deemed useless by a future iOS update.
The other third-party adapters we originally linked to below were more in the vein of a hack and required you to install an app on whichever compatible head unit you have installed. CarPlay2Air does not need to do so and plugs into almost any existing wired CarPlay system.
Where to buy
As mentioned near the top of this page, CPLAY2air has ceased operations. Amazon stocks plenty of alternative adapters, though, with the option to filter results for your specific vehicle.