After a slow start, Apple's connected-car application, CarPlay, has finally started appearing in vehicles. Not only is the in-dash software designed to make hands-free calls, it also sends and receives texts, gets directions, cues up music and more.
CarPlay displays car-oriented iPhone apps with a consistent, easy-to-follow interface with larger graphics and buttons. But how does CarPlay work, which car models offer it and which apps work with it? Here's what you need to know about CarPlay.
Which iPhones are compatible with CarPlay?
What cars offer CarPlay integration?
Virtually every automaker (other than Toyota) now offers some support for CarPlay, but precisely which specific models support it depends on a confusing array of related options you have to choose from when making your purchase. In general, you'll have to opt for a car's technology or in-dash navigation option, even though you can use Siri and Apple's Maps once you connect the phone.
While the CarPlay app will look the same on the screens of all vehicles, how you use it will depend on what controls — buttons, knobs and touch screens — the automaker favors in its designs. While some will rely mostly on touch-screen controls, others will mainly opt for physical buttons.
Can I get CarPlay in the car I already own?
Generally not from the dealer, but you can add an aftermarket unit. The exceptions involve vehicles that are only one or two years old and that already have built-in connected car systems. Some of those models, such as the ones using the latest Ford Sync, do offer upgrades. Hyundai is another example; some of the company's cars that are one or two years old, such as the Sonata, are upgradable.
However, you can replace your existing car stereo/navigation system and purchase a new in-dash infotainment system that works with CarPlay. Several models from Pioneer, such as the Pioneer AVH-1330NEX for about $400 support the software and are also compatible with Android Auto.
There are also a variety of systems from Alpine, JVC and Kenwood now available for as little as $300. Most are so-called double-DIN models — meaning they won't fit in older vehicles with smaller in-dash radios. To make sure microphones are properly positioned (and your dashboard remains intact), we recommend that you have a professional install these systems.
How do you connect your iPhone to CarPlay?
In most cases, to pair an iPhone with a vehicle, you have to plug it into the dashboard with a Lightning cable. When your car detects that your iPhone has been connected, it will automatically pop up the CarPlay icon and update compatible apps. One important note: Once your phone is connected, its screen will be locked to eliminate any temptation to use it while you're driving.
In some vehicles, you will be able to make the iPhone-to-car-connection wirelessly. In its 2017 5 Series, BMW is the first automaker to offer wireless CarPlay support. However, Harman, which supplies telematics systems to several automakers, now supports a wireless connection, so expect to see it trickle out in other models shortly.
Apple has an updated list of available models you should check out.
What apps work with CarPlay?
Apple’s own CarPlay apps include Maps, Phone, Messages and Music. Other apps include Podcasts and Audiobooks.
Third-party apps available for CarPlay are chosen by Apple. Consequently, the platform offers limited support for about 20 apps.Those include Apple Music, iHeartRadio, Spotify and Pandora. There is also a smattering of such apps as NPR radio and MLB.
All CarPlay apps must support Siri for hands-free operation. Apple says it will follow the model of Apple TV, adding support for only a few select apps, primarily those it deems appropriate and safe for in-car use. So far, additional apps have been slow to appear.
How is Siri integrated?
Siri is a significant feature of CarPlay. You can ask Apple's digital assistant to find a nearby coffee shop, get directions to an address and play music performed by anyone, from Hüsker Dü to David Bowie. Siri will also understand that you're behind the wheel and offer answers that are related to driving (like finding the closest restroom) while refraining from delivering anything that might make you take your eyes off the road (like a lengthy review on Yelp).
You will be able to use the car's existing buttons to launch Siri, turn down the volume or switch between apps. This level of integration is CarPlay's primary benefit.
However, Siri can be slow to respond, because the digital assistant relies on a connection to the cloud. Having to wait 4 or 5 seconds for Siri to answer a question while you're driving at 65 mph can feel like an eternity. On the other hand, Siri's ability to (mostly) understand natural-language questions is an improvement over many current in-car voice-recognition systems.
As with other apps and features, CarPlay's Siri and Apple Maps have access to the latest iOS updates.
Do you need a cell signal for CarPlay to work?
Most of CarPlay's functions will only work if you have a cell signal, because the platform relies on a connected iPhone to do most of the work. For this reason, buyers won't see many — if any — vehicles that include CarPlay without also including the automaker's own built-in navigation system (which will work even when no cellular service is available).
Does CarPlay take control of the dashboard?
No — and yes.
You will not be able to use the CarPlay app to select radio stations, turn on cruise control or adjust the A/C in the car, for example. So you can't ask Siri to make the driver's temperature 72 degrees. Those voice commands will still be managed, where available, by the car's own speech-recognition system.
Nevertheless, like other apps, CarPlay works in concert with the car's other systems to reduce distractions and hopefully improve safety. For example, it will automatically mute for audible warnings like a cross-traffic bell or blind-spot alert chime.
On the other hand, in some vehicles, when you engage CarPlay, the entire in-dash screen is subsumed by the Apple interface. That means the display won't show you the radio station you may have tuned in or the car's other options. Getting out of CarPlay to these other features can also be a bit confusing. In Hyundai vehicles, for example, a Hyundai icon appears next to Apple apps; tapping it takes you back to the car's main screen.
Given how disorienting juggling two interfaces can be, a number of car companies, such as Volvo for its latest models, now offer CarPlay in a split-screen format, with the car's built-in system on one side and whatever you're using in CarPlay on the other.
Do CarPlay-enabled vehicles also support Android phones?
CarPlay is essentially just another app in a car's dashboard display. Consequently, virtually every automaker that has committed to supporting CarPlay has also promised to support Google's Android Auto, which works in a similar fashion.
As engineers at Ford have said repeatedly, they're not in the business of selling smartphones and want to work with the phones their customers already use — all the phones their customers use. Hence, plan to support both CarPlay and Android Auto as well as their own apps.
So you won't be limited by CarPlay. If you prefer to use an app not supported by CarPlay, for example, you can switch out of it and in many cases use the automaker's own supported apps. The number and variety of such independent apps will depend on how extensive the individual automaker's connected options are.