What is Apple CarPlay?

Sami Haj-Assaad
by Sami Haj-Assaad

Apple is about to release its answer to in-car infotainment systems, allowing in-car screens to be powered by iPhones.

Arriving later this year, CarPlay has the potential to change the way we’re used to using infotainment systems. Here’s the concept: you jump into your car, plug your phone in and hit the ignition. The car turns on and continues to play whatever you were listening to while your recent conversations and destinations pop up on the infotainment screen. Apple wants to create a seamless transition between your phone and your car.

Buttons, Screens and Dials

CarPlay uses the same controls in your car as you’re used to. You can use the built-in voice control system, touch screen or rotary knobs and buttons. There’s no need to re-learn how to use your car’s entertainment system – CarPlay works with what you have.

The system works using an Apple Lightning cable rather than Bluetooth. A tighter connection than Bluetooth, the Lightening cable is proprietary for Apple products and allows it to transfer more data between the car and the phone. That should allow the screen to respond to input with little hesitation.

Look and Feel

It’s important to understand that CarPlay is enabled and powered by your iPhone and is provided in addition to the native infotainment software. That means the manufacturer’s infotainment system is still usable if you don’t have an iPhone.

When CarPlay launches, you’ll be greeted with a 4×2 grid of icons. Apps can be accessed via the touchscreen or with the standard buttons around the car. Additionally, you can launch an action with Siri by pressing the vehicle’s voice recognition button.

Once CarPlay is running, you’ll see the familiar iPhone “Home” button on the bottom left corner of the screen. Poking that will send you back to the grid of apps, just like it would on your phone.

Jump into the music screen and you’ll see playlists from the phone and the option to use iTunes radio, which streams music to your car using your mobile Internet connection. Once you start listening to a song, you’ll see album art painted in the background behind large on-screen playback control buttons. The icons are fingertip-sized to make them easy to press while driving.

The Maps interface in Apple CarPlay highlights the importance of integrating your iPhone with your car. Because your phone stores all your email and messages, it can bring up destinations mentioned in emails or texts sent to you, meaning you won’t have to re-enter any details that were already in a message. If you do, you can just use Siri to search.

There are several other third party apps that will have CarPlay integration, with icons of their own on the home CarPlay screen. iHeartRadio, Spotify, Pandora, Stitcher, Beats Music and Podcasts will all allow you to stream online media into your car with the same integration as the rest of the system, meaning album art and Siri voice control.

Launch Date

Several automakers plan to offer CarPlay compatibility in 2015 model year vehicles that will arrive this year. Mercedes, Volvo, Ferrari and Honda have all released videos and photos of their cars with CarPlay integration. Even if your vehicle isn’t compatible from the factory, companies including Alpine and Pioneer plan to offer installable screens to retrofit your car.

iPhone Only

CarPlay only works the iPhone 5 and beyond, meaning you’re out of luck with an older handset. Will this encourage people who don’t have an iPhone to buy one in order to use CarPlay?

Probably not because Apple’s system is similar to another technology called MirrorLink, which mirrors a compatible smartphone on the main display of the car. Obviously, there are plenty of people who don’t use iPhones, so you can expect manufacturers to offer MirrorLink compatibility as well.

SEE ALSO: Looking into the Future of Automotive Infotainment – Video

There’s a pretty big difference between the two, though. For CarPlay, it seems like Apple dictates what apps are available for use with the system, while MirrorLink apps must meet a safety standard guideline.

The Siri Connection

When Apple launched Siri with iOS 5 in 2011, it introduced a personal assistant in your phone that responded to your voice. It seemed like the perfect fit for drivers who need to keep their eyes on the road, but wanted to control their smartphones at the same time. Of course, that really wasn’t the case because even while using Siri, you are often required to look at the phone to tap an additional command.

“Siri Eye-Free mode” is available in some new cars and is designed with drivers in mind. CarPlay not only adds a visual element to this software, but also integrates physical controls using all the same buttons and controls that we’re already used to.

You can look forward to vehicles compatible with CarPlay starting to arrive late this year. Even if it and similar systems don’t gain mainstream acceptance, they could serve to spur infotainment systems in general to improve more quickly.

Sami Haj-Assaad
Sami Haj-Assaad

Sami has an unquenchable thirst for car knowledge and has been at AutoGuide for the past six years. He has a degree in journalism and media studies from the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto and has won multiple journalism awards from the Automotive Journalist Association of Canada. Sami is also on the jury for the World Car Awards.

More by Sami Haj-Assaad

Join the conversation
  • MistyGreen MistyGreen on May 27, 2014

    Good to know! I had been wondering how that worked.

  • Jim Mc Cool Jim Mc Cool on May 27, 2014

    Sounds like more trouble than it's worth.

    • See 3 previous
    • Mikehendricks Mikehendricks on Nov 19, 2014

      Actually (replying to a 6 month old post! ;), I just installed a Pioneer unit in my truck with CarPlay and love it. The hands free operation with Siri is great. The whole system is extremely easy to use and makes access to my music collection, text messages and mapping extremely intuitive and MUCH more safe on the road! Your text comes in and it reads it to you automatically...then you respond by voice and it reads your message back you you before asking you if you want to send it. Had it for a couple weeks now and it has worked flawlessly. There have been people bashing Apple Maps over the past couple years, but I have NEVER had any inaccuracies in my areas. The Apple Maps usages on the CarPlay system has been great as well. Finally, I am now able to access my full music collection (via the cloud or whatever is loaded on my phone), including iTunes Radio...all by just telling Siri what I want (songs, playlists, artists) or through a simple large touch interface. There are additional apps you can get as well such as iHeart Radio that just work! All-in-all great system!! (And that's not even saying any of the great things about the Pioneer AVH 4000-NEX head unit!)