CarPlay: The present and future of Apple automotive

Apple Car is the latest product rumored to be lurking deep in the vaults of Cupertino. Whether Apple ever decides to get into the automotive industry in a hardware-way or not, the company is already invested in CarPlay, and that means they're in cars even if the company's not making one themselves. The car industry moves slowly, however, and CarPlay is only just beginning to roll out. We got a chance to see a lot of the tech at CES 2014, but given the rumors, we thought it would be a good time to look back — and look forward — at Apple and automotive, and do it in full roundtable fashion!

What's lacking in your current in-car iPhone integration?

Ally: This question comes at a very interesting time in our household. We have two Honda vehicles. My 2014 CRV does a nice job of managing Bluetooth both with hands free calls and Bluetooth audio. However, we just traded in our 2012 Honda Crosstour with Navigation for a new Crosstour without Navigation. Reason? The two systems fight each other and it results in a piss poor user experience. After looking at after-market options and finding next to nothing that was compatible, we're lucky our dealer was able to give us a good deal. Hardware buttons ruin everything, like Derek briefly touched on. Glad we didn't make the same decision with our CRV or we'd be in the same boat there I'm sure.

The main problem with smartphone integration in cars right now is that manufacturers set themselves up for obsolescence out of the factory door. Not only that, the different companies that make the different systems have zero communication between them, which makes fixing issues virtually impossible. When mobile technology is moving at light speed and you're moving at a snail's pace, you're not doing your customers any favors. So yeah, I'm a little frustrated with the current state of car technology.

Derek: HA! My current in-car iPhone integration consists of a dash-mounted bracket that can hold a vertical iPhone 6 or horizontal iPad Mini, getting power via a 9-volt-to-USB-to-Lightning adapter that also doubles as a Bluetooth connection to my car's auxiliary input. Technically, Honda does offer a connection kit for iPhones for my car (a 2007 Civic), but it'd be a nightmare trying to use any modern functions of these devices via the old-school LCD+buttons+dials interface of my car's stereo. In short, there's a lot lacking.

Peter: Quality. I've pieced it together with a Bluetooth head unit in one car and a USB tether in another. I drive older vehicles — one's from '04, another's from '99, so I've had to piece it together.

Ren: I love how seamless my Prius's Bluetooth and USB integration is, and the mic's clarity, but I'm missing out on a good Siri trigger in a big way. "HEY SIRI" requires shouting over music to engage, and that's only if I remember to plug my phone in; there's also no easy way to dial numbers outside of Siri's voice-activation feature or manually pressing the Home button. I will say, though, I intentionally went with a lower-model Prius to avoid Toyota's manufacturer-specific EnTune touchscreen suite; I vastly appreciate having manual dials for my speakers over a half-hearted touch-screen interface with an abortive attempt at GPS and voice tech.

Rene: My Toyota Matrix (AWD for Canada, yo!) is old enough that its idea of iPhone integration is limited to a dock connector in the glove compartment. It works, barely. I didn't get Bluetooth, though I'm not sure if that's a blessing or a curse in that car.

I know that modern Toyotas have much better infotainment systems and much better integration, but the idea of one-more-thing to deal with fills me with as much hope as dread. Car makers aren't traditionally great at software. In fact, traditionally, they stink at it.

That's what makes CarPlay so fascinating to me.

How does CarPlay look to you right now?

Ally: I briefly considered a CarPlay unit in my CRV but ruled it out as an option for now. I haven't had much hands-on time with it aside from demo units at retailers such as Best Buy. Needless to say, I wasn't impressed. I'm also not convinced CarPlay won't be more of a distraction to many drivers.

Derek: CarPlay right now looks disappointing, and part of that is likely driven by the pathetic computing hardware that goes into most modern cars and aftermarket headunits. In essence, both CarPlay and Android Auto are auxiliary touch displays with microphones, speakers, and a button to trigger dictation. It's not a complicated system at all, yet every implementation I've seen of it so far has let me down with slow responsiveness and visible framerates.

Peter: When I'm finally in the market for a new car it's something I'll look for, certainly. But at this stage it's just aspirational. I'm not about to sink money into one of the few third-party CarPlay head units now based on their cost and their relative value of my vehicles.

Ren: I like the general idea of CarPlay, but its execution still leaves me a bit cold — especially considering there's no way for me to get it in my 2015 model, just one year back from CarPlay support. But if I'm being honest, I don't want to have to touch a display to trigger Maps or my contacts or messages; I just want better voice interaction with Siri. If "Hey Siri" was more refined and understood a better variety of commands, I don't think I'd need any sort of touch screen at all — and that's just fine with me.

Rene: CarPlay holds massive appeal to me. I bought my current car the year before proper iPhone integration. When I asked if there was anyway for me to upgrade to the new system, I was told I'd have to buy the new car. Yeah, no.

In an age of CarPlay, I'd never have to worry about that. The in-car hardware might age, newer, better displays might come out, but as long as what I had worked, I'd be upgraded as often as the iPhone and iOS. And so far, that's yearly.

Whatever is on my phone becomes my car. The interface I'm used to is the one I use. Taken a step further, if I land at an airport and rent a car, and it has CarPlay, I don't need to worry about learning that car's system either.

So yeah, even though the software is only generation one, CarPlay holds massive appeal.

What would you like to see from CarPlay in the future?

Ally: I'd like to see Apple work more closely with car manufacturers so that they actually design systems that aren't closed off and completely non-upgradeable. I shouldn't have to buy a new car when my Bluetooth is outdated. We are at a point where car companies need to do more to support technology. I'm not convinced Apple is making a car, but I do think there's a value in them forming relationships that push CarPlay to the limit and make it a viable option for not only new car owners, but older vehicle owners too.

I also agree with Peter. CarPlay needs to rely heavily on Siri to keep people's hands off the screen and on the wheel. In its current implementation, I don't see that.

Derek: Responsiveness responsiveness responsiveness. I want it to not irritate me first before we get around to future improvements. But when on the topic of future improvements, I'd like to see CarPlay integrate deeper into the modern car's automated systems. It wouldn't be a huge leap to see CarPlay recognizing and saving a driver's preferences with regards to climate control, stereo volume, seat position, throttle and steering responsiveness, etc. Heck, this could even be set so that when a young driver gets into the car the top speed and throttle response are automatically set to parent-defined limits. But more than anything, I'd want to see it go wireless (more and more cars are coming with Wi-Fi standard). Get in the car, leave my phone in my pocket, and just fire it up.

Peter: The future of CarPlay is inextricably linked to Siri. Apple must make voice-actuated actions as seamless and intuitive as possible. Siri's gotten a lot better, but it has a long way to go before it becomes the intelligent assistant I think we aspire Siri to be.

Ren: Unless you're in a certain income bracket or love a good lease, cars aren't something you get to upgrade every few years, and that means those who jump on the CarPlay bandwagon now may be stuck with pretty terrible touchscreen tech as Apple evolves the concept. The software itself, thankfully, is linked to your iPhone — a much cheaper upgrade in the scheme of things — but how well will updated software run without good hardware to match?

This is the problem I keep coming back to in regards to CarPlay: Because manufacturers control hardware design, they get to dictate when a car gets improvements — and rarely do you get to replace just the head console; you have to get an entirely new car to receive the upgrade. I know it's not necessarily something Apple can enforce change on, but I do hope there's a way to convince manufacturers to consider head console upgrades when it comes to stuff like this. (Pipe dream, I know.)

As for CarPlay's software side, I want, need, and desire Siri improvements. Siri should do more, understand better, and activate more easily — and perhaps even retain limited functionality offline, for the parts of the country that offer subpar cellular data service. And if CarPlay does indeed go wireless in the future, some way to trigger "Hey Siri" when the iPhone isn't plugged in wouldn't hurt, either.

Rene: The codename for CarPlay was Stark, after Tony Stark and the futuristic technology that surrounded him. I love that. It's just a codename, of course, but it makes me hopeful for that future.

Apple being Apple, I'm sure they're already hard at work on the next generation of CarPlay, and perhaps the generation after that as well. I'd love it if that included some offline capabilities.

When driving between cities, when the cellular network disappears, losing streaming radio is inconvenient. Losing Siri or Maps means I lose voice control and navigation, and that's far, far worse than inconvenient.

(If you think that's a rural-only problem, I invite you to try and get data in New York city on some networks…)

Other than that, we're at the mercy of the vendors. Apple can only integrate with what the vendors allow. That is, unless and until they make their own hardware...

Would an Apple Car be better for you than CarPlay?

Derek: I can't say for sure. A car is a tool, at least for me. A very expensive and potentially dangerous tool, but a tool nonetheless. It's transportation from point A to point B. Sure, there was a time when our phones were merely tools to engage in audio conversations and nothing more, but unlike a phone where we've slowly over the past two decades added more and more functionality, doing so with an automobile is a different proposition altogether. I presently ask two things from my phone/tablet when I'm driving right now: audio (music or reading Instapaper aloud to me) and navigation. Anything at all beyond that (okay, I'm guilty of doing more, and I hate myself for it) needs better autonomous driving before I'll feel truly safe. If the Apple Car is going to do anything at all for me better than CarPlay or my current car, it's going to have to drive itself.

Ally: I'm going to agree with Derek here. To me a car is also a way to get from point A to point B. Would it be convenient to have my technology readily available in my car? Sure.

But only if it doesn't come at the cost of drivers around me being even more distracted than they already are.

Peter: An entire automotive experience driven by Apple's design, engineering and aesthetic point of view? Sign me up for the Epcot Center ride, at the very least. Sure, I'd love to see Apple's vision for a car. But that's so far beyond my experience with their products, I can't quite wrap my head around what an "Apple Car" might be like.

Ren: While, like Peter, I love the theoretical idea of an Apple-built car, it seems a largely impractical market for Apple to jump into just now. Given CEO Tim Cook's emphasis on smart environmentalism, I can't imagine the company going into the gas market, which means they'd be working alongside Tesla in the electric space — and Tesla's had enough problems getting their cars to users in the last few years. Could Apple make an absolute blow-away car? I have no doubt. Would it be worth the resources and time the company would have to pour into it? That's another question entirely.

Rene: An Apple Car — hell, even an Apple after-market infotainment center, let's call it HiFi 2! — would allow for far more extensive, Apple-driven experiences. Instead of simply interfacing with the infotainment system, they could interface with everything, from climate control to drive systems. It's the difference between being an app on a phone and being the phone.

Apple's proven they're really good at delivering compelling experiences. If Apple went from CarPlay to Apple Car, they could theoretically deliver a really compelling automotive experience.

What would you want from an Apple Car?

Ally: Safety is my number one concern. Mobile phones and what people do with them in cars already causes too many tragedies. We don't need anymore.

In terms of an actual car, I'm not a car buff so reliability and reasonable pricing would be next on my list.

Derek: I… don't know. Aside from the standards of safe, reliable, solid, and attractive, it's hard to say. If you'd asked me in early 2007 what I wanted from an Apple phone I'd have not said anything about a capacitive touchscreen keyboard or a WebKit browser. I had a Palm Treo 755p, and while it was a heck of a phone, it was a tool. Just as my car right now is a tool. For an Apple Car to be worth anything, it has to transcend being a mere "tool" as the iPhone radically expanded the definition and appeal of a smartphone.

Peter: Safety, economy, user-centric design experience and thoughtful changes from the way I'm used to operating a vehicle that truly makes the experience better. And some fat bass in the back seat.

Ren: Smart, reliable, electric, economic, and safe. A sleek design paired with next-generation console technology — an Apple HUD, maybe? — would be a heck of a thing to see, and I have faith Apple could make some real innovations here where others have failed. Top-of the line safety features, no question. All-electric motors that don't break the bank and last as long as a tank of gas — and with that, playing nice with Tesla and pairing up on building Supercharger stations, so that users don't have to worry about their car running out of battery halfway down the road.

People joke about an Apple Car being unrepairable, but frankly, we already have machines on the market that fill those buckets, including Tesla, Toyota's Prius, Nissan's Leaf, and the rest of the hybrid/all-electric models. If the car tech space moves into battery-operated electric motors, they're by nature going to be less repairable, because building that sort of motor is hard enough; having it be reliable, economical, and also able to be rebuilt by the average user is a tricky challenge indeed.

Rene: I'd want the same thing from an Apple Car that I get from an Apple phone or tablet — an incredibly refined, incredibly integrated experience. I'd want Jony Ive and crew to distill the car down to the same level of minimalism, the same feeling of inevitability I get from their existing products.

We have three Toyotas in my family. All three of them have completely different interfaces and control schemes. I'm sure there's some rationale for that, but it means I have to do mental gymnastics to remember where everything is whenever I drive on of the other cars. That's inhuman, and that's the kind of thing Apple is great at solving.

Safety is mandated by law but could always stand innovation. Pricing is something Apple considers far less than value. There's a short list of products that seem to fit Apple's strengths and their sensibilities. Cars are on that list. Whether they ever decide to get into the business or not — and that really is a business choice — they could do some very interesting things.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.