What is Apple CarPlay?

What is Apple CarPlay? Here's all you need to know about iOS in your dashboard

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In the car infotainment wars, there are three camps: Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and that stuff you get by default when you buy a car that doesn’t support the first two. Increasingly, CarPlay and Android Auto are the only true contenders in this contest. And frankly, that’s for the best.

Apple may never design a car from scratch, but the tech giant is nonetheless a player in the automotive industry. Launched in 2014 after a lengthy development process, CarPlay overlays itself on top of a car’s factory-loaded infotainment system to provide a different experience. What is Apple CarPlay, though, and how exactly does it work? In short, it gives iPhone-wielding motorists a quick and convenient way to access the data stored on their device.

CarPlay makes driving safer by reducing distractions, at least according to Apple and AAA, and it’s more user-friendly than many infotainment systems found in cars. That’s because motorists can access a wide array of features without touching their mobile device, or taking their eyes off the road. If you’re ready for iOS in your dashboard, here’s everything you need to know about Apple CarPlay.

Not an iPhone user? Curious about what Android Auto is? We’ve got you covered.

What can Apple CarPlay do?

Apple CarPlay — Apple calls it the ultimate co-pilot — performs many of the same functions as an iPhone. Motorists can use the software to get turn-by-turn directions, make calls, send and receive text messages, and listen to music or podcasts. The features are displayed on an easy-to-use interface with large icons that iPhone users will instantly recognize.

The bulk of CarPlay’s features can be accessed using Siri, Apple’s digital assistant. For example, the driver can say “call Alex,” “get directions to Cafe Rio,” or “play Chumbawamba” and Siri will obey. Motorists whose car isn’t equipped with voice-recognition technology can navigate the software using the touchscreen embedded in the dashboard, or the various knobs and buttons typically found on the steering wheel and center console. The iPhone’s screen is locked when CarPlay is active. The whole point of the software is to reduce distractions, after all.

Some third-party apps are compatible with — and optimized for — CarPlay. The best CarPlay apps for the iPhone includes iHeartRadio, Spotify, Pandora, Waze, WhatsApp, Amazon Music, CBS Radio, Tidal, and NPR One. Surprisingly, Apple CarPlay also supports some apps developed by rival Google. Google Play Music and Google Maps are both accessible via the software.

However, vehicle settings aren’t part of CarPlay, so the driver has to exit the application to adjust the climate control temperature, browse radio stations, or select a different driving mode. While Google has helped automakers — notably Volvo — develop infotainment systems, no one has inked a similar partnership with Apple — at least not yet.

Which phones are compatible with Apple CarPlay?

Motorists who want Apple’s operating system in their dashboard need a compatible iPhone. Every iPhone since the 5 is CarPlay-friendly, though the device needs to run iOS 7.1 or newer for the app to work. You won’t be able to run CarPlay if you’re still using an iPhone with a 30-pin connector, or if you have an iPad.

Some cars support wireless CarPlay, too. In the ones that don’t, the iPhone needs to be physically connected to the car via a certified lightning-to-USB cable.

Which cars are compatible with Apple CarPlay?

A wide variety of models from all over the automotive spectrum are compatible with Apple CarPlay. They range from relatively basic cars such as the Chevrolet Spark to high-end supercars like the Lamborghini Huracan Evo. Volvo, Honda, Chevrolet, BMW, Ford, and Porsche are among the dozens of brands that offer CarPlay compatibility. Note that some companies make customers pay extra for the tech, while others include it as standard equipment.

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Toyota spent years resisting CarPlay — and Google’s rival software, Android Auto — due to safety and privacy concerns. The Japanese firm recently changed its mind and started offering CarPlay on some of its models, including the 2019 RAV4, the 2019 Corolla Hatch, and the 2019 Avalon. Toyota-owned Lexus also started rolling out the software in some of its cars like the ES and the RX. It’s safe to bet others will follow; the floodgates of consumer deman have now opened.

All told, if you’re in the market for a new car, it’s not difficult to find one equipped with Apple CarPlay — there are hundreds if you live in North America, so we built a guide outlining all the cars that can currently be equipped with CarPlay. The story is different in Europe, where automakers have been slower to adopt the technology.

The list of used cars compatible with CarPlay is getting longer every year. However, if you’re driving a 1980s BMW or something even older, keep in mind that Alpine, Kenwood, Pioneer, and Sony all sell CarPlay-compatible aftermarket systems that bring cutting-edge smartphone integration to the world of winter beaters and classic cars.

What’s new with Apple CarPlay?

Apple offers regular updates to its CarPlay software, adding new features, improving compatibility, and generally making life better for car owners. Here’s a look at recent changes to the infotainment software.

iOS 13: Coinciding with the launch of iOS 13, Apple announced a number of updates for CarPlay at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, on June 3, 2019. They change the overall look of CarPlay, which has become an integral part of countless commutes since launching in 2014. Apple claims CarPlay is now available in 90% of new cars sold in the United States.

The updated CarPlay gets a new “Dashboard” view that lets users see multiple apps at once. So drivers can now have navigation and music functions open at the same time, on the same screen. That functionality is available on some automakers’ built-in infotainment systems, but this is the first time it’s been applied to CarPlay. The music display has also been redesigned to better emphasize album artwork as well, according to Apple.

Finally, CarPlay will overlay Siri voice recognition on top of other apps, providing a more streamlined user experience. Currently, users have to open a dedicated screen to activate Siri. Apple also added a calendar app to CarPlay, and now lets Siri work with third-party navigation and audio apps. Read all about the changes here.

iOS 12: For the 2018 update to the iPhone, Apple announced a major update to CarPlay: support for third-party navigational apps — including Google Maps and Waze, the two most popular options in America today. For many users who eschew CarPlay altogether in favor of phone-based navigation, this could streamline commutes and reduce transportation stress when driving to new locations.

The addition of support for Google Maps and Waze — not to mention the brevity of the announcement in the WWDC keynote and the news’ relegation to a footnote in this press release — may signal an admission from Apple that its navigational software is, indeed, inferior. Last June, Apple deployed a program, TryRating, that allowed users to test Apple Maps software and provide feedback, ostensibly in an attempt to improve the app’s accuracy. Read all about the changes here.

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