Is Apple CarPlay the future of in-car infotainment?

Apple wants to smarten up your wheels with a new generation of in-car iScreens

Ferrari has become the first car manufacturer to adopt Apple CarPlay, a new infotainment system that let’s you see the iPhone interface displayed on the car’s touch screen and access apps in exactly the same way you would on the phone itself.

Announced at this year’s Geneva Motor Show, CarPlay is available to order on the Ferrari FF as an option now, but Ferrari has still to announce the price.

So why would a master of style like Ferrari need to avail itself of Apple’s talents in quite such an undiluted, literal way? A quick look through the legion of infotainment in cars across the board gives a pretty good idea of why. While some are OK, many are downright clunky. The history of the modern, connected, infotainment screen can be traced back to the first generation BMW iDrive system launched on the 7-Series in 2001. 

Based on the Windows CE operating system, the design of the iDrive interface was counter intuitive in just about every respect. In fact it was so confusing that customer were given a briefing by the dealer on how to use it and a follow-up VHS instruction video. Imagine having to go through that to master any modern smartphone today. 

So perhaps leaving the design of an infotainment system’s graphical user interface to the people who invented the graphical user interface isn’t such a bad idea after all. Actually, Apple is no newcomer to the in-car infotainment market anyway and has worked with the automotive industry for more than 10 years developing all those iPod connections we now take for granted. 

CarPlay is compatible with the iPhone 5, 5C and 5S with an upgrade to iOS 7 (but not the iPod) and connects using a Lightning adapter cable, before being tucked away in the armrest. Initially, the system is pretty discreet, appearing as an item on the Ferrari’s home screen. Touch it, and the screen changes to a facsimile of the iPhone complete with home button. After that, it’s just a matter of doing what you do with the iPhone – well, almost. 

Despite the look and feel of CarPlay matching that of the iPhone, there is one crucial difference and that’s the number of apps available. Designing in-car systems is all about avoiding driver distraction so what you get in this case is a cut down version of the iPhone with a selection of apps. Apple has also designed CarPlay to more reliant on iPhone’s Siri voice recognition system to encourage as much voice control as possible, reducing the need for the driver to use the touch screen, something that requires taking the eyes off the road.

More after the break...

With CarPlay, you can make calls, access contacts, return missed calls, listen to voicemails, have text messages read back to you and dictate responses in what Apple calls ‘an eyes-free experience.’ You can access Maps (that’s Apple Maps, not your choice of map app) and of course, music, which includes podcasts, audio books and iTunes Radio. CarPlay does support a couple of third party apps, Spotify and iHeart Radio and although no details have been released, there are plans to roll out more.

Maps can be used as a satnav (although it isn’t specifically intended to replace the Ferrari’s own system), giving spoken turn-by-turn route instructions, reporting on traffic conditions and keeping you updated on your ETA. The iPhone makes use of any destination you may have stored away in contacts, emails or text messages to anticipate where you may want to go, receiving your instructions via Siri. 

Apple says Siri has been optimised for use in-car using a different set of acoustical models, to take into account the background tyre, wind and engine noise that often foxes voice control systems. Whatever you think of Siri as a day-to-day tool, it arguably comes into it’s own in this environment because most, if not all, in-car voice control systems are command based rather than being able to cope with natural speech as Siri does. 

However, in a demonstration by an Apple technician on the Ferrari stand at Geneva, Siri received route instructions to US destinations but was unable to interpret a UK-based postcode or village name using his iPhone. Maps did happily accept the same code when typed in using the touch screen though and provided decent route instructions back to the UK. That may be an example though, of how Siri would make use of destination data stored in an individual iPhone to recognise locations. In that case, CarPlay would be providing the first ever satnav whose settings are transparently personalised to each individual user.

When in the CarPlay screen, touching a Ferrari logo takes you back into the Ferrari home screen to interact with the car’s settings, so the two are kept quite separate. Ferrari will roll the system out in the new California T, which also debuted in Geneva, in June, but more work needs to be done to introduce CarPlay to some of its other cars, such as the 458, whose screens are in a different format. Ferrari has no specific plans to introduce an Android solution to its cars in the near future but one senior insider says he thinks that will follow once the CarPlay has been fully integrated into the rest of the range.

Although it’s starting in pole position, Ferrari won’t be the only manufacturer to take CarPlay. Volvo announced it will launch the system in the XC90 next year, Nissan will also be also introducing it to the lineup in 2015 and so will 14 other manufacturers at some stage, including Mercedes. Does CarPlay represent the future of in-car Infotainment systems? Judging by the seamless way the iPhone integrates with the Ferrari and that fact that for an existing iPhone user, the learning curve is zero, it certainly looks that way.

[Ferrari FF interior image: Car and Driver]


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