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What is Apple CarPlay?

Apple's in-car infotainment system is gaining popularity, but what exactly does it do?

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Apple CarPlay is a system designed by Apple, in conjunction with car manufacturers, that allows you to control selected apps on your iPhone from your car’s infotainment system.

The idea is to allow drivers to control selected apps on your phone in a safe manner while driving, such as your navigation, phone, messaging and music apps. Unsurprisingly, a similar system for Android phones was developed shortly after, called Android Auto.

Apple CarPlay is gradually being adopted by virtually every car company as new models are unveiled. The central display screens on new cars are perfect for CarPlay to create a display that looks very much like an iPhone screen, using app icons that look exactly the same as the ones on your phone.

Some older systems can be retrofitted with CarPlay, either by the car manufacturer or by independent companies, and there are a growing number of aftermarket stereo systems that can run CarPlay.

Apple CarPlay - MINI Countryman and Clubman
Apple CarPlay is available on the latest Mini models

Systems like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will potentially revolutionise in-car infotainment systems, providing a much better experience for car owners at a lower cost than traditional systems. A smartphone is far more advanced than your car’s radio and satnav system anyway, so it seems smarter for your car to use your phone’s technology rather than provide its own, inferior, systems.

The system also uses Apple’s Siri voice control system in addition to the car’s controls, so you don’t have to fiddle around with buttons or a touchscreen.

Which functions can I use?

Apple CarPlay allows you to access the following while driving:

Navigation: Your iPhone has a free and regularly updated navigation system already built in, thanks to Apple Maps. It may have been justifiably derided when it was first launched for being a bit rubbish, but Apple has been working away on its Maps app to the point where it is now as good as (if not better than) Google Maps and comes complete with a full “turn by turn” navigation system that is better than most portable satnav units or integrated manufacturer nav systems.

Apple Maps now provides speed limit information, lane suggestions and full UK postcode recognition. Plus the mapping is updated almost every week with the latest changes to the UK road system.

Phone calls: Using your car’s steering wheel phone controls, or the controls for the display screen, you can answer or reject calls, listen to voicemails.

There’s no need to sync your contacts between your phone and your car, as the system gets the information directly from your iPhone when a call is made or received.

Messages: Your text messages can be displayed on the car’s display screen, or Siri can read them to you if you prefer. You can also dictate a message for Siri to send to anyone in your contacts.

Audio: You can play music, podcasts or audiobooks stored on your phone from iTunes or your Apple Music account, or from other music apps like Spotify, Google Play Music or Amazon Music. You can also access radio apps like BBC iPlayer Radio.

Manufacturer apps: Many car manufacturers have developed specific apps that allow you to access certain car settings from the CarPlay display. To date, these have been very basic, but will develop further as demand grows and the manufacturers develop systems that integrate better with CarPlay.

Apple CarPlay running on a Volvo XC90
Apple CarPlay running on a Volvo XC90

Do I need Apple CarPlay on my new car?

If you are buying a new car and it offers the option of Apple CarPlay (usually along with Android Auto as well), it is definitely a worthwhile addition. At the moment, the level of integration between your phone and your car is somewhat limited, but this will accelerate rapidly in coming years.

The key selling points of Apple CarPlay are:

  • A (usually) seamless integration of selected functions of your iPhone with your car’s infotainment system
  • It’s always up to date. Apple updates iOS every year, with minor updates several times a year. When was the last time you updated your car’s operating system (or even had the option to?). If you have ever been frustrated by the navigation system on a ten-year-old car, you’ll understand the importance of keeping things up to date.
  • Voice control by Siri. Most voice command systems are, frankly, a waste of time. Siri, on the other hand, is one of the best on the market. If you use Siri anyway, you’ll find it perfectly natural to use it in your car. If you don’t currently use Siri on your iPhone, you may find it so useful in your car that you start using it all the time.
  • Only approved apps are accessible when driving. Your iPhone essentially blacks out when you plug it into your car, so any non-essential notifications will not be displayed until you disconnect it again. So no Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter (sorry Donald) or other distractions while you’re driving.

Important considerations are:

  • Apple CarPlay needs a decent phone signal at all times. Apple Maps, Apple Music, Spotify and most other apps require a constant data signal to function. If you are driving beyond cellular network range, your CarPlay won’t work.
  • Your phone needs to be plugged in to charge at all times. With your iPhone running your car stereo and providing navigation, and continually downloading and uploading data, your phone battery will go flat in no time. To date, all the CarPlay-compatible systems available have used a cable to connect your iPhone, so it will charge your phone while it working anyway. However, BMW has announced the first wireless CarPlay system, which sounds great but will kill your iPhone battery on a long journey. Some cars now have wireless charging as well, which you will need if you’re not plugging the phone in every time.

Is Apple CarPlay actually any good?

Depending on how new your particular model of car is, you may not find that CarPlay works any better than your existing navigation or voice control systems. However, a key part of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is that they will continue to be updated and improved, just like the operating system on your phone.

This means your car infotainment system will continue to get smarter over time, unlike existing systems that don’t improve or maintain compatibility with newer hardware and software.

What if I’m buying a used car? Can I get Apple CarPlay added?

Most existing cars on the road were not designed with Apple CarPlay in mind – in fact, one of the problems with traditional car infotainment systems is that they usually lag years behind consumers (which is why most new cars are still sold with CD players). Some systems can be retrofitted to accommodate CarPlay and/or Android Auto, but many can’t.

If you have an old-school standard size rectangular stereo (called DIN, or double DIN for units that are twice as tall), then you can easily replace your current unit with an aftermarket stereo that incorporates CarPlay. There are several stereo manufacturers who make CarPlay units that can slot straight into your car, and prices generally start at a couple of hundred pounds.

However, these have been getting increasingly rare over the last decade, as manufacturers preferred to fit integrated infotainment systems that are not interchangeable. This is more of a problem, as you can’t just pull out the old system and replace it.

For more popular brands like Audi, aftermarket companies have been developing hardware and software that updates existing systems to work with CarPlay. In coming years, many more companies are likely to find ways of adding CarPlay to your old unit, but it may take years to cover all the makes and models in the marketplace, so don’t hold your breath waiting.

The latest from The Car Expert

Stuart Masson
Stuart Massonhttps://www.thecarexpert.co.uk/
Stuart is the Editorial Director of our suite of sites: The Car Expert, The Van Expert and The Truck Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.