For years, some of the best cars in the world have been hamstrung with sluggish, confusing, or borderline useless infotainment systems. Suddenly, it looks like maddening world of in-car software just got a whole lot simpler. At Apple’s Spring Forward press conference in San Francisco highlighting its latest product developments (including the Apple Watch), Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook announced the company’s CarPlay system would be greatly expanded for 2015, with “over 40 new models” equipped with CarPlay software to be offered by a number of major automakers by the end of the year.
Launched at the 2014 Geneva Auto Show, CarPlay was introduced as a “smarter, safer and more fun way to use iPhone in the car,” but its growing popularity and widespread adoption across the automotive world threatens to render manufacturer-specific operating systems obsolete. The software uses a version of Apple’s iOS 8 to override the car’s factory infotainment system, allowing use of the iPhone’s maps, phone contacts, apps, and music library, with the iPhone’s Siri interface allowing for hands-free direction. CarPlay is the first serious operating system to seriously transcend the brand-exclusive systems that automakers have stubbornly held onto for years, and could hopefully render them a thing of the past.
While infotainment systems are a necessity for most new car buyers, few have a reputation for providing a user friendly experience. BMW’s first-generation iDrive and Cadillac’s CUE systems were almost universally reviled, and when other computer-based software companies have tried their hand at car-specific software it hasn’t exactly gone well. Ford’s once-hyped collaboration with Microsoft to develop their Sync system quietly ended in 2014 as the automaker switched to a simpler system. A third-party program like CarPlay could finally work out the kinks that have confounded the major automakers for years, and offer an intuitive system that transcends individual makes.
Because of the potential for massive profits in developing in-car software, CarPlay looks to be up against some stiff competition in Google’s Android Auto software. Google has long cornered the market for maps and directions, and with the popularity of its Android-based systems, it’s gearing up for a long battle with Apple for auto supremacy. Automakers are hedging their bets by making most models compatible with both operating systems – but there is still one notable holdout. Last month, Toyota announced that it’s sticking with its own operating system, and will consider CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity for future models. For most other automakers however, third party infotainment programs are the way of the future.
The first car to come with standard CarPlay software was a Ferrari FF delivered last fall, but the software’s second year is already shaping up to be much more egalitarian. Hyundai announced that navigation-equipped Sonatas will come with standard CarPlay software by late 2015, and the all-new Volvo XC90 will prominently feature the new operating system. Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and Ford have all eagerly taken steps to quickly make CarPlay their own. The list of participating automakers suggests that buyers will soon be able to buy CarPlay equipped cars from nearly every make in North America, Europe, and Asia – making Cook’s 40 model claim seem pretty realistic.
For years, it was speculated that a third-party would make universal software for car infotainment systems, and it seems natural that Apple and Google would fight for dominance in that market. The hype surrounding these two operating systems and their widespread acceptance in the auto industry is an acknowledgement by carmakers that they can’t build operating systems that compete with dedicated software companies – and that isn’t a bad thing.
CarPlay and Android Auto will undoubtedly be more user friendly, more intuitive, and result in more satisfied customers, both for the automakers and Apple (or Google). Apple may not have announced anything about the rumored iCar at Spring Forward, but the expansion of CarPlay is a major step for the company into the automotive marketplace. It will give Apple a tremendous amount of influence with carmakers, and will ensure that it plays a major role in the auto industry well into the future, even if it never builds a car.
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