Craig Federighi, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering, speaks about CarPlay onstage at Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference in San Jose, California on June 5, 2017.
Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty images
In the early 2010s, car manufacturers and their suppliers were enthusiastic about building advanced car dashboard apps that went beyond a CD player and a small LED screen.
By partnering with companies like Microsoft, car manufacturers began to come up with maps, music and roadside assistance services, often bundled in an upgrade package. They entered into large consortia to create industry standards for connecting smartphones to cars.
Then Apple came in and everything changed.
Apple introduced CarPlay in 2014 as a way to integrate the iPhone and a car’s dashboard. Since then it has been ubiquitous in new cars.
Around the world, more than 80% of new cars sold support CarPlay, Apple said last year. That equates to about 600 new models, including cars from Volkswagen, BMW and Chrysler. Toyota, one of the longest holdouts, started to include CarPlay models in 2019.
It is also a top feature for many drivers and car buyers. According to a 2017 Strategy Analytics survey, 23 percent of new car buyers in the US say they “should have” CarPlay and 56% are “interested” in CarPlay when they buy a new car. When Ford’s highly anticipated electric F-150 goes on sale, it will support CarPlay.
Apple was able to slip between customers and car companies, ensuring that the interface was the one every iPhone user wants while driving. It’s an underrated win for one of the world’s most successful companies. CarPlay does not contribute direct Apple revenue or profits. But it creates continued loyalty from iPhone users and gives Apple a path to the auto industry if it wants to expand.
The power of the smartphone
Easily manage your music in CarPlay with iOS 13.
Most cars use an infotainment control system based on Linux, BlackBerry’s QNX, or Google’s Android Automotive to display a screen embedded in the car’s dashboard. The infotainment systems often have their own music or map software, and car companies sell wireless subscriptions and other enhanced features for them.
CarPlay works on top of those infotainment operating systems, giving iPhone owners access to their main apps while driving in a way that’s safer than looking at their phone. Through CarPlay, users can open Apple or Google Maps, play Apple Music or Spotify, or dictate a text message to send home. All that processing is done on the phone itself.
CarPlay and a rival Android program, Android Auto, are not automotive operating systems. It’s really phone software, says Mark Fitzgerald, an analyst at Strategy Analytics. Ultimately, it’s like using your car’s display as an external monitor for your phone.
“What’s in your car, when you plug it in, there’s essentially a client software client that just shows stuff from your phone on your infotainment system display,” Fitzgerald said.
Many users feel that this is all they need.
When users have both CarPlay and a built-in system, they usually use CarPlay. 34% of CarPlay users surveyed by Strategy Analytics in 2018 said they only use CarPlay in their car, and 33% said they mainly use CarPlay. Only 4% of the users surveyed say they use the embedded system in favor of CarPlay.
Apple has also expanded CarPlay over the years to make it more valuable to iPhone owners.
When CarPlay first came out, you needed a cord to connect your phone to your car. In 2015, Apple started to support Bluetooth wireless connections, allowing users to start CarPlay just by getting into the car and connecting their phone. While it took a few years for new cars to support this feature, it is now widespread.
Last summer, Apple and BMW announced that users could use their iPhone to unlock car doors or even start the engine, and Apple is participating in a standards group to spread the feature among automakers.
Google has a similar software called Android Auto that extends its Android operating system to the dashboard of the car. CarPlay and Android Auto are not mutually exclusive: a car that supports one usually supports the other. It is popular, with its Android app downloaded 100 million times by 2020.
When it became clear to car manufacturers that the computing power and software in smartphones would improve much faster than they could improve their built-in infotainment systems, they tried to adapt.
The Car Connectivity Consortium, which includes most of the top car manufacturers and the most important suppliers, developed Mirrorlink, an open standard for connecting smartphones to car systems. It rolled out in 2011, but was quickly replaced by Apple and Google.
Samsung, the standard’s largest financier and also owns a major dashboard supplier, stopped supporting Mirrorlink in its phones last year. No other major Android brand still supports it, and the consortium’s website only lists a few older devices as supported devices.
A big step towards self-driving cars
The new Dashboard mode in CarPlay.
Mack Hogan | The Washington City Times
Apple’s success with CarPlay explains the auto industry’s interest in rumors that Apple is planning to build its own car. If Apple had been so successful in taking over the dashboard, the company may be able to turn that into a competitive vehicle.
According to media reports, Apple has been investigating the software for a self-driving electric car since 2014. Earlier this year, Hyundai said in an official statement that it was in talks with Apple about the production of its car before scaling back, likely due to Apple’s strict nondisclosure requirements. Hyundai eventually said it was no longer in talks with Apple.
Automotive executives showed confidence in appearance but respect for the challenge Apple could pose in the automotive industry. Volkswagen’s CEO said he was “unafraid” that Apple would enter the market. BMW’s CEO said he “sleeps peacefully at night” in response to questions about Apple’s plans. The Toyota CEO warned that making a smartphone is very different from making a car.
Apple’s ultimate plans remain unclear. According to a report from Reuters, Apple could still decide to sell software and hardware – an autonomous driving system – to automakers, rather than design its own vehicle.
But if Apple were to enter the automotive world, it would require a fundamentally different strategy from CarPlay.
CarPlay is mainly about making the iPhone more attractive. It also offers other benefits to Apple, such as making Apple Music subscriptions more valuable – people want to play music in their car, but need an easy way to control it while driving. In a March note, Citi analyst Jim Suva estimated that CarPlay could add $ 2 billion to Apple’s annual service sales.
But CarPlay is not a money maker in and of itself. Currently, CarPlay is free in most new vehicles, from base models to luxury SUVs. BMW charged users a monthly fee to access CarPlay, but stopped in 2019 after customers complained.
Apple says carmakers don’t charge to use the software. It is not a licensing company. (If it did, Apple could bundle it for $ 750 per unit and sell 9 million units by 2025, bringing in sales of $ 6.5 billion, Suva estimates.)
Apple could use its position in the car to support more of its ambitions. It is already using its App Store distribution platform to encourage software developers to optimize their apps for the car, in categories such as finding a car charger, ordering food, or finding parking. Those features would be a core part of an Apple in-car experience. Apple also collects data necessary to run CarPlay, and even when this data is anonymized to ensure users’ privacy, it gives Apple a lot of raw information about what people are doing in their cars.
But CarPlay couldn’t power a self-driving car, requiring various chips and specialized hardware qualified for in-car use.
If Apple were to sell software to self-driving car manufacturers, it would take a different form from CarPlay. Google’s car fragmentation is a prime example: it builds Android Automotive as the operating system for cars, Android Auto as a competitor to CarPlay, and funds the development of Waymo, a self-driving technology and car service company that is now a sister company to Alphabet.
Still, the success of CarPlay could create a built-in demand for an Apple Car – or at least keep consumers from dismissive of the idea.
Apple typically reveals updates to its CarPlay software at its annual developer conference, WWDC, starting June 7th this year.