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Apple CarPlay is not the savior you think it is

Apple CarPlay as it appears in the 2017 Ford Escape, showing that there is a new text message. (Sinclair Broadcast Group / Jill Ciminillo)

In social media posts, I have recently called Apple CarPlay “evil” and “the devil.” While that is obvious hyperbole, it demonstrates my continued frustration with this new technology that has been touted as the cure for distracted driving.

It isn’t. At all.

Unless you use it exactly the way Apple thinks you should use it.

WHAT IS CARPLAY?

As Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific, points out, CarPlay is simply a phone mirroring program - and a limited one at that.

According to Kim, Apple wanted to create an easy interface that iPhone users would be familiar with - right down to the identical app icons and “home” button.


However, if you think that this system mirrors every app on your phone, you’re wrong. Apple was very selective with which apps transfer to your vehicle’s infotainment screen, and at the time of writing this article, in addition to the basic Apple Messages, Phone and Music apps, the only external apps you can use via the car include:

  • Podcasts
  • Audiobooks
  • iHeartRadio
  • At Bat
  • Spotify
  • Stitcher
  • CBS Radio
  • Overcast
  • Audiobooks.com
  • Audible
  • Pandora
  • Slacker Radio
  • VOX
  • NPR One
  • Clammr
  • Downcast

Notice the connecting theme? They’re all audio apps.

The downside here is if you want to use another navigation or messaging app, like Waze or WhatsApp, you’re out of luck.

During a recent road trip, I tried to use Waze, plug into the CarPlay system so that I could send voice-to-text messages and listen to SiriusXM Satellite radio through the car’s audio system. It worked great -- for the first 5 minutes. As soon as Waze needed to issue me a direction, satellite radio switched over to CarPlay’s music app, which then played the first song in my library.


I had to fumble with my phone and the car to reset the system the way I wanted it, only to be thwarted at the next directive.

I finally unplugged from CarPlay and tapped into another non-connected USB port to charge, kept Waze on my phone, listened to satellite radio on the car and handed my phone to my husband when I wanted to send a text message.

This is not the Utopia I had envisioned when I was waiting anxiously for CarPlay to appear.

We reached out to Apple to ask about the disconnect between phone apps, CarPlay and the car systems, but at the time of publishing this article had received no reply.

HOW IS CARPLAY SUPPOSED TO BE USED?

Cason Grover, the senior group manager of vehicle technology planning and connected car program at Hyundai Motor America, said the point of this technology is to limit distracted driving.


What he didn’t say: Using a lot of apps on your phone or in the car is distracting.

In other words: “If you come into it with expectation that it does everything your phone does, you’re in for disappointment,” Grover said.

With the goal of eliminating distracted driving, CarPlay is specifically set up to be familiar as well as limit the use of apps that might cause a driver to take his hands off the wheel or eyes off the road. But, it’s also going to be completely Apple-centric.

“Many implementations of CarPlay are aimed at people who, for the most part, are happy to stay within the Apple ecosystem,” Kim said.

This means you can’t use other messaging apps like WhatsApp, Skype or Facebook messenger - even if you want to use it hands-free. Nor can you use any other mapping or navigation app, including Google Maps or Waze.

If you choose to use CarPlay, it’s all Apple all the time.

OTHER CARPLAY FRUSTRATIONS

In addition to the inherent CarPlay limitations, there are a couple other things you should know about the system before you use it.

First, all CarPlay implementations are not the same. They basically look the same on your screen because, well, mirroring. But, how you interact with Siri and how you navigate back to your car’s native settings will differ.

Some manufacturers allow you to use voice commands for both car and CarPlay functions with a simple press of the “talk” button on the steering wheel. Others will allow you to do a short press for car functions and a long press for Siri.

Additionally, some systems are more limiting than others.

For example, if you’re driving a General Motors or Fiat Chrysler product with CarPlay, you’ll be limited in how far you can scroll through items on various apps.


“In many versions of CarPlay they restrict you to three screen scrolls,” Kim said. “So if you have a playlist called Ziggy’s Stardust, you can’t get there because it’s four or five screens down. I end up having to pull out my phone, take my eyes off the road and scroll through on my phone to get what I want, which defeats the whole purpose of CarPlay.”

This applies not only to external apps like Spotify but also to the Apple Music app. If you have a song or artist that you want at the end of the alphabet, you cannot scroll through the menus to get there via the car.

Kim points out that both Apple and the automakers would like you to use the voice recognition system to get to those playlists or songs, but this only works on the Apple Music app - not Spotify or any other external audio app. And it only works if the voice recognition software in the car recognizes the commands and your voice. Which it doesn’t always do.

According to Kim the most flexible and easy-to-use iterations of CarPlay are currently in Hyundai, Kia and Volkswagen products.


Another frustration with CarPlay: In most instances you have to be wired in to use it. Currently, the only manufacturer that allows you to connect to CarPlay via Bluetooth is BMW.

IS THERE ANYTHING GOOD ABOUT CARPLAY?

If you are a happy Apple user, there are a few things to love about CarPlay:

  • It negates the need to purchase a pricey navigation system. But that also means you’re stuck with the incredibly mediocre Apple Maps app to get you from point A to point B.
  • When voice recognition in the car works well, voice-to-text is a nifty feature. Siri will help you send text messages and read any incoming messages.
  • Calendar reminders pop up on your info screen, which can be a lifesaver if you’ve forgotten a conference call, birthday or appointment.
  • The Podcasts app makes it really easy to listen to podcasts through the car.

Again, as long as you don’t want to do anything crazy, like use Waze or scroll to the end of the alphabet in Spotify, CarPlay does help reduce distraction while driving.

WHAT ABOUT ANDROID AUTO?

When you buy a new car equipped with CarPlay, this usually means it also has Android Auto.

Plus, according to Kim, Android Auto is inherently more flexible and easier to use than CarPlay while driving.


“It lets you use four different messaging systems, and they’re about to launch Waze support,” Kim said.

Auto is also not just a phone mirroring system. It’s set up differently from the phone system, organized specifically for ease of use while driving. In fact, Auto is an actual app on Android phones, which can be used on a phone while driving - even if the car you’re driving doesn’t have Auto capability.

Kim also pointed out that Auto doesn’t have the scrolling limitations of CarPlay.

At the end of the day, both CarPlay and Auto are still nascent technologies. It’s only been a year or so since the first automaker started installing the systems in cars, and at this point, pretty much every major automaker - except Toyota - has committed to installing the system in their vehicles moving forward.

While the technology may be frustrating today, there’s always hope for tomorrow.

“Both of these software solutions are evolving over time,” Grover said. “What you see today is not what you’ll see tomorrow. Neither one of these companies is known for sitting still.”

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