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Motoring Top Stories

What is Apple CarPlay?

Practical Motoring logo Practical Motoring 18/05/2017 Alex Rae

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If you’re in the market for a new car, chances are high that you’ve already heard the term ‘Apple CarPlay’ thrown about, and most reviews will point out if a car has or hasn’t got it. But just what is it, what does it do, and does it really matter if a car has it, or not?

Apple CarPlay is, essentially, a better way to use a phone handsfree. It provides better integration than Bluetooth and given nearly all new cars come with a touchscreen, it makes sense as it allows, more or less, what you see on your phone to be displayed on the car's infotainment screen. It allows for doing more than just making calls, such as using apps like maps, messages with many new systems allowing you to use voice-dictation, Spotify and other music streaming services.

For most manufacturers it also saves needing to implement and maintain navigation software, although this means if you don’t have an iPhone you might miss out on navigation altogether; although most systems running Apple CarPlay also offer Android Auto which we'll explain in greater detail in a separate article. For the most part, it’s a win for both consumers and manufacturers, but not all car companies are happy about having to incorporate it. And some flat out refuse to, Toyota, we're looking at you.

BMW for instance, has been very reluctant to integrate Apple CarPlay into its lineup. This is because it has invested time and money to make its own infotainment seamless to use, known as iDrive, BMW has constantly refined its system. And there’s a bit of irony here, because CarPlay came about from a joint venture between Apple and BMW years before it was unveiled at the 2014 Geneva Motor Show.

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A short history

When Apple iOS 4 was released in 2010, the system software added a feature known as ‘iPod Out’. It enabled a basic home screen video feed from Apple devices over its cable connection along with a return feed to control the device. This is essentially the backbone of how Apple CarPlay now works.

At the time, BMW Technology USA, located down the road from Apple’s headquarters, saw an opportunity for hands free integration and joined Apple to develop the feature into what is now known as Apple CarPlay. But by the time it officially launched, BMW dissociated itself from the venture and declared it would not be integrating Apple CarPlay.

In 2015, the Ferrari FF was the first car to feature CarPlay, and subsequently over 100 cars now use it.

Since then, BMW has doubled-back and integrated CarPlay in its 2017 5-Series. It even became the first manufacturer to feature wireless CarPlay connectivity.

How do I connect it up?

First up, you’ll need a compatible car, iPhone 5 or newer and an iPhone cable.

Nearly all compatible cars require a USB connection to enable CarPlay, and thus any car with CarPlay must have at least one USB port. Most Audi’s will allow connecting CarPlay through any of its USB ports, but the new Honda Civic Hatch, for instance, can only connect via the port under the centre console.

The software itself already exists in the phone's operating system (iOS), and as the CarPlay screen is cast from the connected device, CarPlay updates happen when the device is updated. Siri must also be enabled, or it won't connect.

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Once an iPhone is connected and the car is stationary, the infotainment will prompt an agreement to allow CarPlay connectivity. CarPlay will usually ask if you agree to share bits of anonymous data with Apple. After that, the car should recognise the device whenever it is connected and display the CarPlay home screen.

If you are connecting to a BMW 5-series, for instance, the process is a little different. The BMW system will prompt the user through different steps, including the connection of Bluetooth, but once it is set up the car will wirelessly connect CarPlay without the need for a cable.

Using CarPlay

CarPlay is controlled via the car's infotainment input controls and this can include the steering wheel buttons, capacitive touchscreen and voice control (via Siri) - all CarPlay apps are approved by Apple and need to support Siri.

The home screen layout is simple and displays the available apps. As CarPlay only operates within its own software, it can't use any of the features found on the car's infotainment. To do that requires exiting CarPlay.

For instance, using voice control to command navigation, such as ‘navigate to Alice Springs’, will prompt Siri to start route guidance using Apple Maps. It won't use the manufacturer's navigation and map data, so you'll need a mobile data connection for navigation.

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Message support allows for messages to be read out and messages composed using voice-to-text. This support extends to apps like WhatsUp, although there’s no home app button for it. Call functions are much the same and perform similar to a Bluetooth connection.

The CarPlay screen is a quasi version of the iPhone home screen, so there’s no notifications or email support to get distracted by. Things like music and navigation sounds will also dim when the car’s safety features are triggered. Reversing cameras and other parking sensor displays will also take over the infotainment screen when operating.

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What else does it do?

Because CarPlay uses Siri, the commands in-car are similar. Here are some useful ones when driving:

  • Call...
  • Send message…
  • Find the closest petrol station...
  • What’s the weather like...
  • Play song, artist or genre...
  • Navigate to favourite restaurant…
  • Is favourite restaurant open now?
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Do I need a mobile network connection?

You don’t need a mobile network connection to use CarPlay but most of the apps won’t run properly without one - except for listening to music stored on the device.

Can I still use my phone?

It depends on the car. Some cars will lock the phone so that it can't be used while connected, whereas other cars will allow the phone to be used. But if you’re navigating with Apple Maps and someone leaves the app to search the internet, the navigation will stop working. Basically the phone shouldn't be used when operating in CarPlay mode.

What if I have an Android phone?

You can’t use Apple CarPlay, but you can use Android Auto if the car has it. We'll have a guide to Android Auto online shortly.

Can I use Apple CarPlay on aftermarket stereos or install the software myself?

Some aftermarket headunits have Apple CarPlay, but the USB connection needs to go directly into the headunit and it won’t integrate with the cars buttons.

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Some manufacturers have added CarPlay in a later software upgrade, but this isn’t common practice.

What other cool apps are there?

CarPlay’s core functionality is integrating calls, messages, navigation and music. There’s not much to do outside of this. You can’t do things like watch videos or browse the internet.

Supported devices and cars:

Apple iPhone 5 and later models. Follow the link here to see a list, via Apple, of cars supporting CarPlay Apple CarPlay.

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