At its developer conference in June of 2013, Apple revealed that it was developing a way to display information from an iPhone on a screen in a car. In March of 2014, Apple announced that this technology would be called CarPlay. The first car to use CarPlay was the Ferrari FF released in September of 2014. However, automobile manufacturers were slow to add CarPlay support. By January of 2016, there were 100 models from 21 brands that either already had CarPlay or which had CarPlay support coming later in 2016. Today, there are just over 250 models from 41 brands supporting CarPlay. Toyota and some other brands still don't support CarPlay at all, some brands only support it in one or a few models, and you often have to get a higher-priced version of a car model to get CarPlay support. Add to this the fact that most folks go many years between buying a new car, and the net result is that the vast majority of people are not driving cars with CarPlay support. I hadn't even talked to anyone using CarPlay in their own car until I started shopping for a new car earlier this year and I heard car salesman describe how they were using this technology. A few weeks ago, I bought a new car with CarPlay — a 2017 Honda Accord (Touring) — so I have finally had the chance to try out CarPlay myself. I absolutely love it, and I recommend that you look for CarPlay support the next time that you buy a new car. You will want to have this.
How it works
CarPlay may be an option that you need to select on a new car, but the car itself has relatively little to do with CarPlay. The car just provides some basic hardware — a color touchscreen, a button to control Siri, and traditional buttons to support audio playback. In virtually all car models, CarPlay uses a USB port, and you plug your iPhone into that port using a USB-to-Lightning cable.
The cable means that your car can charge your iPhone's battery while you drive, which is nice. But more importantly, the cord lets your iPhone control what is showing on the CarPlay screen. You see, the brains of CarPlay comes from your iPhone, not your car. It is fair to think of CarPlay as just an external monitor for your iPhone, albeit one with touch controls. It was smart for Apple to design CarPlay this way. It means that Apple has complete control on the CarPlay interface. It also means that every time that Apple updates iOS, it can improve CarPlay. Thus, with CarPlay, your car becomes just an accessory for your iPhone. A really expensive accessory. If you own an Apple Watch and you use it to control your iPhone – such as using the Now Playing app on an Apple Watch to play/pause/FF/RW music coming from your iPhone — CarPlay is the same idea.
Here is what the CarPlay screen looks like in my 2017 Honda Accord when connected to my iPhone 7 via a USB-to-Lightning cord:
Note that on the far left of the screen, there is a strip of buttons that says "Home" at the top, then some volume controls, and a "Back" button at the bottom. That is not CarPlay; those are Honda-specific touchscreen buttons right next to the CarPlay screen. Everything else in that center screen is CarPlay.
My Honda Accord also features some buttons on the left side of the steering wheel that can be used to control certain CarPlay functions: a RW and FW button, volume up and down buttons, and a button that you hold down to activate Siri:
Some cars also have a physical knob that can be used to scroll through a list on a CarPlay screen, but my car doesn't have that feature.
Apple also makes a wireless version of CarPlay that uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi so that your iPhone can control the CarPlay screen and receive input from the car without a USB-to-Lightning cable. I believe that the BMW 2017 5-Series is the only shipping vehicle that currently supports this feature. I can see how this might sometimes be useful, such as for a very short trip when you don't want to bother with a cord, but I don't consider it a problem to plug in my iPhone to make CarPlay work. In fact, I prefer plugging in so that I can charge my iPhone. I've been using Bluetooth to play audio in my car since 2010, and while I could use Bluetooth audio without plugging in my phone, I virtually always plugged in my phone anyway just to charge while I was driving. Thus, while I expect that it will be a while before we see more widespread adoption of the wireless version of CarPlay, I think that most folks would, like me, be perfectly satisfied with the wired version of CarPlay currently in use.
It is also possible to add CarPlay to an older car by purchasing and installing a video screen that works with CarPlay. Note that some older and less expensive CarPlay screens use a resistive touchscreen, which means that you need to push and apply pressure to select an option on the screen. Newer screens use a capacitive touchscreen which works when your finger makes contact with the screen without having to push down. The 2017 Honda Accord has a capacitive touchscreen.
Starting CarPlay is incredibly easy. Just start your car and attach your iPhone to the USB cable, and CarPlay starts on the screen. If you were previously playing a song, podcast, etc., CarPlay will sometimes resume playback, but not always; I haven't yet figured out what makes that happen automatically. If the audio didn't start right away, just tap the play button (the arrow) in the middle of the CarPlay screen.
It is my intention today to discuss CarPlay, not the Honda Accord-specific implementation of CarPlay. Nevertheless, I will mention one minor gripe that may not exist on some other cars. When I start my car, I first have to wait for Honda's built-in entertainment system to start, and then after that is done CarPlay can start. As a result, it takes a good 20-30 seconds after starting the car for CarPlay to be fully operational. No, that's not a very long time and certainly isn't a deal-breaker, but I'd be happier if CarPlay started far more quickly. I've seen complaints about CarPlay starting slowly on other cars too so I know that this isn't unique to the 2017 Honda Accord.
CarPlay has a main app screen that you can access by tapping the home button at the bottom left of any screen. From here, you see a list of apps on your iPhone that support CarPlay. Swipe left or right on the CarPlay screen to switch between screens, just like you would do on an iPhone or iPad.
You can change the order of these apps by opening the Settings app on your iPhone and going to General -> CarPlay.
These apps are not actually living inside of that CarPlay screen; they are just projections from apps on your iPhone. Thus, if you are using one app in CarPlay and you pick up your iPhone to switch to another CarPlay-compatible app, CarPlay will switch as well. If you switch to an app that doesn't work with CarPlay, the CarPlay screen will stay on the home screen while you use that app on your iPhone. Tap an app on the CarPlay screen and it will exit the app you had been using on your iPhone and will launch the corresponding app on your iPhone. Thus, you cannot use one app on your iPhone while simultaneously seeing a different app on the CarPlay screen.
Whether you are on the home screen or using an app, there is always a thin bar in the left side of the screen. The bottom shows you the time, Wi-FI or Cellular signal strength, and the home button. The top of the screen has three buttons which correspond to the most recent audio, map and phone app that you have used. There are many different CarPlay audio apps right now, but currently CarPlay only supports Apple's Maps app and Apple's Phone app. Thus, those top three buttons will always show the Maps and Phone icons; only the third icon changes to show your most recently-used audio app. The order of those three apps is based on how recently you used each app. These three icons give you a way to quickly launch those apps without having to first go to the Home Screen.
Perhaps the best part of CarPlay is the interface that it provides for listening to audio in your car, using a CarPlay-compatible audio app on your iPhone. For example, if you are playing music from the iPhone's built-in Music app, that app projects a corresponding Music app onto CarPlay.
Every audio app supports a Now Playing screen. Here is what it looks like when playing a song from the Music app:
The background displays (very faintly) the album art. The on-screen controls are fairly self-explanatory. If you are playing songs from a playlist, the top left shows you the name of the playlist; otherwise, it just says "Playlists" and tapping it will bring you to the list of playlists. There are traditional buttons to play/pause/FF/RW. Instead of those on-screen buttons, you can also use whatever hardware buttons are available. In my car, there are buttons on the left side of the steering wheel. It is nice to shuffle all of the songs on my iPhone and have the ability to quickly skip any song that I am not in the mood to hear by just pressing the FF button on my steering wheel.
Tapping the three dots at the bottom gives you the option to love or dislike a song and the option to create a custom radio station based upon that song:
Third-party audio apps can also take advantage of CarPlay. I use Overcast to play podcasts on my iPhone, and there is a corresponding CarPlay version of the app. Here is what the Now Playing screen looks like in the Overcast app:
I can see information on the podcast currently playing including how much time is left, podcast artwork is displayed in the background, and the FF and RW buttons can be used to jump forward or backward in a podcast. Overcast lets you set how much; I have the FF button set to 30 seconds forward to help me quickly skip through commercials that I don't want to hear, and I have RW set to 15 seconds so that I can go back when I jumped forward too far. The ability to FF and RW through a podcast using the hardware buttons built-in to the steering wheel is incredibly useful.
The Now Playing screen is the most important part of any audio app. For that reason, there is actually a special CarPlay app called Now Playing that will quickly show you the Now Playing screen of your most recent audio app. But audio apps can support other screens as well. For example, in the Music app, you can also see a list of artists, playlists, etc. and select something new from there, and there is an Up Next screen so you can preview songs about to be played.
In the Overcast app, there are screens to let you select a different podcast, a different playlist, or a specific episode.
Apple has an Audiobooks app, and Amazon makes an Audible app, either of which can be used to play audio books. It won't surprise you to learn that using CarPlay to listen to an audio book works much, much better than the books on tape that I listened to back when I was in college.
I have always enjoyed listening to audio from my iPhone in my car. With CarPlay, the experience is so much better because the big screen makes it easy to see and control what I am listening to.
As noted above, CarPlay currently only works with Apple's Maps app. I cannot think of any technical reason that Google Maps, Waze, and others wouldn't work with CarPlay, but considering that Google makes the competing Android platform, perhaps Google just doesn't want to do anything to improve CarPlay.
Fortunately, Apple's Maps app has improved substantially over the last few years, and it works well on CarPlay. You can use Siri, your iPhone, or the CarPlay interface to choose a destination. Then you get turn-by-turn directions, along with Siri voice prompts.
You cannot pinch to zoom in or out on the CarPlay screen. Instead, you can double-tap to zoom in, and there are also plus and minus buttons on the bottom right to zoom.
While you are driving, Maps switches to a 3D view.
Much like the Maps app on the iPhone itself, Maps on CarPlay can even suggest certain nearby establishments such as gas stations, restaurants, or grocery stores. There is also a button to show recent destinations.
At night, Maps automatically switches to a darker interface.
The experience of using Maps in CarPlay is similar to the experience of using Maps on an iPhone when you have an iPhone in a prominent position using a car mount. But with CarPlay, the screen is bigger and built-in to your car, and buttons are bigger and easier to tap. Thus, it is a nicer experience.
Although CarPlay supports the Phone app, I haven't found it much more useful than just using the older Siri Eyes Free technology with Bluetooth. To place a call in my old car, I could activate Siri, tell it to call my wife at home, and the iPhone would do so. With CarPlay, the experience is very similar, except that now I can use the CarPlay screen to see what is going on.
CarPlay is more helpful when you are receiving a call because you can see the name of who is calling you on the screen. I wish that CarPlay also showed the caller's picture. When CarPlay was first announced in 2013 (back when it was still called iOS in the Car), Apple showed a demo of the technology in which a photo of the caller appeared on the screen:
I'm not sure why Apple didn't yet implement that feature. CarPlay does have access to the photo portion of a contact; if you use the Phone app in CarPlay to browse your list of contacts, you see the person's picture in that part of the app (assuming that you assigned a picture to a specific contact).
My experience with Messages is similar to my experience with Phone: the CarPlay screen adds a nice improvement over Siri Eyes Free, but it is not a fundamentally better experience.
When I first saw the Messages app on the CarPlay screen, I thought that it might display the words of a text message on the screen. But of course, that would be incredibly distracting for a driver, could lead to accidents, and would be illegal in many states. Instead, the Messages app provides a way for CarPlay to read your message out loud, and a way for you to dictate messages.
There is not a CarPlay version of the Mail app. You can still use the traditional Siri Eyes Free commands to work with your emails, such as asking Siri to read you your newest email, but nothing will display on the CarPlay screen.
The menus on built-in entertainment systems in cars are notoriously horrible. Perhaps the best feature of CarPlay is that you get the good taste of Apple's approach to design on the screen of your car. In my new car, there are lots of things that I could do on the built-in screen (listen to traditional radio, play a CD, listen to SiriusXM, etc.), but I suspect that over 99% of my use of that screen will be devoted to CarPlay.
For me, the ability to use audio apps — especially Overcast and Apple's Music apps — is by far my favorite part of CarPlay. But the CarPlay screen is also very useful for Maps, and is somewhat nicer for other functions too. And because CarPlay is controlled by the iPhone, I love that the technology can improve as Apple releases new versions of iOS and new versions of the iPhone. After just a few weeks of using CarPlay, I would never want to use a car that didn't have it. CarPlay works well, is very useful, and makes it much more enjoyable to drive your car.