Will Apple’s quest for dashboard dominance change in-car tech for the better?

Chevy MyLink with Siri Eyes Free
iPhone integration in cars is about to become much more than playing your favorite tunes and taking calls.

For Apple, the dashboard is the final frontier. From computers to music to phones, Cupertino has seemingly assimilated every realm of tech like the Borg creeping across the Delta Quadrant, but it hasn’t really done anything involving cars.

That is about to change.

Apple recently took its first step into the automotive world with Siri Eyes Free, a system that allows drivers of certain models (so far, just the Chevrolet Spark, Spark EV and Sonic) to control Siri using steering wheel-mounted buttons. Next year, Apple will expand beyond Siri with a car-friendly version of iOS.

Why?

The reasoning behind Apple’s car tech about-face is a bit of a mystery. While Steve Jobs enjoyed cruising around in a Mercedes SL and was even rumored to have dreamed up an “iCar,” he never gave any serious attention to in-car tech even while rivals Microsoft and others were racing to take over dashboards. So why now?

Apple is most likely taking a logical business step. In-car tech is a fast-growing segment, with more cars offering some kind of smartphone integration and more consumers considering the phone-car connection a valuable feature during the buying process.

“Just like the App Store is a key part of the ecosystem and iTunes and all of our content are key, and the services we provide from messaging to Siri and so forth, having something in the automobile is very, very important,” Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told Bloomberg.

While Apple has virtually no presence in the automotive infotainment segment beyond plugging in for music and phone ops, competitors like Blackberry and Microsoft have been working with car companies to develop proprietary systems that could also block Apple’s access or at least minimize it in comparison.

Working with carmakers also gives Apple a potential slice of the information those systems generate for drivers. All of the music they listen to and all of the local points of interest they look up represent a significant chunk of change and valuable data.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV profile under a bridgeHow?

Apple recently took its first step toward dashboard domination with Siri Eyes Free. The name says it all: Siri Eyes Free is supposed to allow drivers to use their smartphones to do myriad tasks while still keeping their eyes on the road.

It works by using the steering wheel controls normally reserved for Bluetooth phone calls to activate Siri. Other than moving the controls to the steering wheel, the system works just like the normal version of Siri. That is, except for one safety related difference: any Siri functions that display web results are disabled, because the driver would have to look at his or her phone to see them.

The next step will be full integration of iOS 7 into vehicles from 12 manufacturers including Chevrolet, Nissan, and Mercedes-Benz. This will include an iOS-like home screen for the cars’ infotainment display, and more Apple-specific features.

Of course, no car trip would be complete without music, so Apple will add iTunes Radio to the menu. This new streaming service gives drivers another choice of where to get their music, because with Pandora, Spotify, Stitcher, SiriusXM, AM, FM, CD, MP3, etc., there really aren’t enough choices. But with iTunes radio, iPhone owners will also likely have improved cloud access and voice control over their main music library even if its not all on their phone. 

iTunes Radio will also take on established music streaming brands like Pandora, which says it has 2.5 million U.S. customers listening in their cars and is already present as an in-car app in some infotainment systems.

In a move that will probably make current users groan, Apple Maps will also be taking on navigation duties. The system famous for not being as good as Google Maps could add an extra layer of tech cred to a generic system, as Google features already do in several cars. Apple has been steadily updating Maps and it’s better now, but it’s not there yet. But it could catch up.

So Apple will soon have its own versions of popular infotainment features in dozens of car models, but what’s in it for the carmakers? By signing on for Apple-specific tech, they are taking just as big of a change as Apple itself.

General Motors was the first of the group to bite, bringing Siri Eyes Free to the newly minted 2014 Chevy Sonic, Spark, and Spark EV earlier this year. The company hopes to play on the “halo effect” of the Apple name, using the credibility Cupertino has with tech-happy Millennials and Gen-Xers to move metal, Annalisa Bluhm of Chevrolet PR said.

Chevy’s new small cars are indeed attracting new buyers: 63 percent of Spark owners are new to the brand, Bluhm said. Having Apple in the dash may move even more people to those models.

Siri Eyes Free BMWWhat does this mean for the future of in-car infotainment?

Design is an important part of everything that Apple does, but so far all other tech companies have left the shaping of the dashboards that house their infotainment systems to the carmakers. Will Apple change that?

Apple showed a center stack screen mockup with its iOS in the Car preview but, as the eagle-eyed observers at Apple Insider pointed out, it was actually the screen from a 2014 Spark.

From a practical standpoint it seems more likely that Apple’s design sensibilities will be limited to what drivers see on their screens. The sheer complexity of designing center stacks for the numerous models slated to get Apple integration will probably make anything more ambitious impossible.

Whether non-Apple buyers will accept a car that is geared (no pun intended) heavily toward Apple is another question. Chevy’s Siri-equipped cars can still integrate with other devices, offering the full range of functions including the voice controls already offered by the car’s tech suite. Siri is just one more feature on top of an existing tech options list. If you’re an iPhone devotee, that’s great but note that other phones are not really left out in the cold.

While the carmakers have not announced how they will integrate iOS into their products, it could follow GM’s example: non-Apple users will still be able to play, but the system might offer an extra incentive for someone with an iPhone in their pocket.

A dashboard revolution?

Integrating smartphone-like functions into cars is not going well. Even the best systems are just functional and many systems are just plain maddening and unreliable. Dash tech is not yet highly useful like nearly every other form of personal technology consumers we now operate. Techies are waiting for something that will take in-car infotainment out of the Stone Age and that goes double for those who don’t know USB from SCSI.

Will some focus on the car by Apple be the leap forward we all crave? Apple has revolutionized many things, but Siri Eyes Free and iOS in the Car are more of a bloodless coup that full-blown revolution. The features are familiar; it’s just the setting that is changing. Of course, there’s still much that Apple and the car companies aren’t telling us quite yet. Watch this space.

Got an iPhone? If it could better integrate with a car, does that sway your buying decision? How important is phone integration to you? Tell us in comments.

Computing

In the age of Alexa and Siri, Cortana’s halo has grown dim

In a sea of voice assistants, Cortana has become almost irrelevant. The nearly five-year-old voice assistant is seeing little love from consumers, and here’s why it is dead.
Product Review

Packed with features, the Ring Spotlight Cam Wired makes home security a breeze

With an integrated spotlight, crystal-clear video, and color night vision, this device makes home security a cinch. Here's why we like the Ring Spotlight Cam Wired as a great choice for outdoor home security.
Home Theater

Here’s why you’re not getting Netflix in HD or 4K, and how to fix it

Are you having trouble watching your favorite movies or TV shows on Netflix in HD or 4K? We explain why loading takes so long, why the picture quality fluctuates, and what you can do about it.
Home Theater

From the Roku Ultra to the Fire TV Cube, these are the best streaming devices

There are more options for media streamers than ever, so it’s more difficult to pick the best option. But that’s why we're here. Our curated list of the best streaming devices will get you online in no time.
Computing

This Mac keyboard is slim, dark, and clicky, but it’s still not perfect

There aren't many great mechanical keyboards for Macs. The Keychron K1 is just the latest attempt to join that hallowed group, but does its blend of style and substance tick all the boxes?
Computing

These 30 useful apps are absolutely essential for Mac lovers

There are literally hundreds of thousands of great software programs compatible with MacOS, but which should you download? Look no further than our list of the best Mac apps you can find.
Mobile

Smartwatch sales soared in 2018, with Apple leading the charge

The NPD Group, a market research organization, has reported smartwatch sales soared in 2018. Apple is leading the charge, but it's clear there's still room in the market for competitors, as Samsung and Fitbit also did well.
Mobile

Need a date for Valentine's Day? Cozy up with the best dating apps of 2019

Everyone knows online dating can be stressful, time-consuming, and downright awful. Check out our top picks for the best dating apps, so you can streamline the process and find the right date, whatever you're looking for.
Computing

One of these monitors will look great next to your new MacBook Pro

Apple doesn't make its beloved Cinema Display monitors anymore, which makes finding the best monitor for the MacBook Pro more difficult. In this guide, we break down some of our favorites and offer something for every size and budget.
Business

Apple loses battle to use Intel modems in Germany in latest clash with Qualcomm

Apple is following the Federal Trade Commission's lead and has sued Qualcomm for a massive $1 billion in the U.S., $145 million in China, and also in the U.K., claiming the company charged onerous royalties for its patented tech.
Mobile

Worried about extra data charges? Here's how to check your usage on an iPhone

It's common to get a little nervous about nearing data limits. Keep your peace of mind by checking how much data your iPhone is using. Our guide on how to check data usage on an iPhone helps you stay in control.
Mobile

New Apple patent hints clamshell-style foldable phone may be in the works

Apple has filed a patent for a foldable phone that suggests the company could be following in the footsteps of the likes of Samsung and Huawei. The patent describes a clamshell-style foldable phone with two separate sections.
Home Theater

Hi-res streaming audio service Qobuz arrives in U.S., threatens Tidal’s monopoly

For several years, Tidal enjoyed a monopoly on hi-res music streaming in the U.S. Now, French company Qobuz is here to offer some competition with a variety of monthly plans starting at $10 a month.
Mobile

Save space on your iPhone by turning off Live Photos in the camera app

If you want to save storage space on your iPhone or reduce the size of your backup for iCloud, then you should think about turning off Live Photos in the camera app. Find out exactly how to do it with our easy guide.