Hands-on with Volvo's Apple CarPlay stereo, the iOS-friendly infotainment system

The Swedish firm takes a step towards beautiful simplicity with its new infotainment system – featuring Apple's iOS-friendly interface. Stuff tries it out…
Volvo Apple CarPlay stereo

Apple's latest version of iOS is taking to the road with CarPlay.

The infotainment system syncs your iPhone up with your car stereo, letting you control music, navigation and calls through a familiar iOS-style touchscreen interface. Swedish car manufacturer Volvo is busy future-proofing its forecourts, kitting out upcoming models with stereos that play nice with the Apple interface – while still offering up a full suite of navigation and entertainment controls for those drivers who don't carry iPhones.

Jonas Soderqvist, director of user experience and connectivity at Volvo, and Stephen Chick, from Apple HQ in California, were on hand at the New York Motor Show to demonstrate how Volvo's new infotainment systems work with Apple's CarPlay technology. Here’s how we got on…

Scandinavian design

Volvo Apple CarPlay stereo

“This user experience will reflect the simplicity and design of the beautiful Volvo ES Concept we revealed earlier this year,” Soderqvist explains as he points towards an attractive touch screen display in the middle of the room.

The black piece of glass sits atop an extremely simplified play module that features a volume dial, play and pause buttons, as well as a small smattering of essential car functions such as heated windshield and hazard lights. Everything else is run from a high-resolution touch screen display – that is, appropriately, around the same size as an iPad.

Simplified user experience

Volvo Apple CarPlay stereo

The touchscreen user experience is as gloriously simple as Volvo’s recent concept offerings, featuring just four stacked tiles that operate in-car essentials including navigation, entertainment, the phone and one other application of the driver’s choice. “This simple system makes it impossible to get lost in the interface,” explains Soderqvist.

Touch the tile you want to access and it'll expand, while the other three tiles remain contracted and available at any time. A home button, similar to that found on Apple products, allows you to head back to the main, four-tile home screen at any time. Once all tiles have been contracted, the most important information – such as the next navigation command or the track name – remains in its corresponding tile.

Swipe to the left and all of the vehicle’s main settings are accessible, from traction control to tyre pressure monitors. Swipe right and the entire multimedia menu is available, displaying any downloaded apps.

Apple CarPlay

Volvo Apple CarPlay stereo

Drivers will be able to ‘pin’ an application of their choice to this fourth tile – which in this case is Apple CarPlay. “We’ve taken all of the features that users love about iPhone and selected the ones that make most sense in the car,” explains Stephen Chick. “Everything seen here is driven directly from the iPhone and run through Siri, so the driver barely has to take their eyes off the road ahead”.

The user interface is as simple as using your iPhone; simply click on the application and Siri awaits vocal instructions. A small home button lets you return to the app selection screen at any time. “The beauty of this system is that is works in harmony with Apple CarPlay,” explains Soderqvist. “If you decide to use Apple Maps, the Volvo navigation system will pause and the same goes for entertainment,” he adds. Siri will also read out emails, transcribe text messages and provide local information, meaning the driver can remain focussed on, erm, driving.

Two minds are better than one

Volvo Apple CarPlay stereo

Volvo has worked hard to make the user experience as simple as possible and that also means the driver can switch between Apple’s Siri voice command or the Swedish marque’s built-in counterpart at the press of a button. “Every menu and function is accessible via Volvo’s own voice command system,” says Soderqvist. “But if the driver wants to ask Siri something, say ‘where’s the nearest car park’, they simply have to hold the voice command button on the steering wheel down for a couple of seconds,” he adds.

“We already created something called Siri Eyes Free, so we have experience of optimising Siri for an in-car environment,” explains Chick. “This system takes it further as it’s fully optimised to work with Volvo’s hardware,” he added. Volvo has also optimised its cabin and microphone set-up to work perfectly with voice commands, ensuring Siri and the on-board voice recognition software isn’t confused by tyre rumble, wind noise and other pesky distractions.

If you're not in the market for a new Volvo, of course, there are other ways to get aboard the CarPlay bandwagon. Pioneer has announced a range of CarPlay-compatible head units, and other manufacturers are sure to follow suit. We reckon it's the future of in-car tech – so it's as well to sign up early.