Chevrolet has announced it will integrate both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto into 14 of its models next year. That’s a lot of cars, and Apple anticipates that CarPlay will be in 40 models worldwide by year’s end. I tried out both systems at an event yesterday, and left curious: Have cars finally become rolling computers?
Cars have had computers built into the dash for decades, but they’ve always been dreadfully useless—or worse, distracting. Chevy, a GM subsidiary, and Apple are striving for the opposite of distracting. Sorry, Android fans, but from what I saw, Android Auto isn’t as useful as Apple CarPlay right now (though you should read our Android Auto preview for a comprehensive look at the system).
At a recent event in New York City, Chevy put extra emphasis on CarPlay. Case in point, when I hopped into a Chevy Malibu to test out the two systems, I found only a Lightning cable for iPhones. This was a little inconvenient for me, since I was using an Android phone. But when I finally got my hands on an iPhone and took CarPlay for a spin, I realized that the once-useless display now had the processing power to turn the whole vehicle into a full fledged computer on wheels.
I imagined how much data it could collect. I imagined Apple opening up a platform to build apps exclusively for cars. I imagined watching the morning news on a wifi-enabled self-driving sedan. In reality, my imagination was getting a little ahead of what the technology actually does and how it actually works.
First things first: Apple CarPlay is undeniably elegant and full of possibilities. It’s also specifically designed to require minimal interaction. Pretty much everything is designed to be controlled through Siri for what Apple calls “an eyes-free experience.”
“We designed it to be conservative,” explained an Apple spokesperson at the event. That makes good sense, since you don’t really want to be doing too many things on your car computer as you’re barreling down the interstate at 70 miles-per-hour.
Android Auto, meanwhile, was stupid simple and not as sophisticated as CarPlay. It was still terrifically useful.
I hopped in the other car at the demo. It was a little Chevy Spark. The screen was smaller—7-inches compared to the Malibu’s 8-inches—but there was a microUSB hiding on the floor. I plugged in my HTC M9, and Android Auto didn’t work. Nothing happened. Phil Abram, GM’s chief infotainment officer, must have seen me struggling, because he hopped into the passenger’s seat and produced a shiny Samsung Galaxy S6. Android Auto fired right up and immediately failed to impress me.
“Can we try CarPlay now?” I asked. Phil obliged and pulled out an iPhone 6. In a few seconds I was watching pretty icons zoom onto the screen as he gave me the tour of CarPlay. He used the Siri-integration to make a phone call. He showed my how I Heart Radio works. I didn’t even realize people still used I Heart Radio, but it was evidence that there would be a range of apps available on CarPlay. This seemed especially interesting, since so many Chevy cars now offer 4G LTE service.
But about those apps. I wondered how would Apple enable developers to build software specifically for dashboard use, perhaps some that even plugged into the car’s diagnostic computer. The Apple spokesperson told me that car-specific apps for iOS are already in the App Store, but she wouldn’t elaborate beyond saying that the company is exploring the possibility of “platform-specific” apps. This was a characteristically tight-lipped answer, not surprising especially considering Apple is rumored to be building its own electric, self-driving car.
At the end of the day, the fact that this technology is becoming mainstream is exciting. It’s clear both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have the potential to make cars not only easier to drive but also safer. Volvo was the first to release Apple CarPlay integration, then Ferrari, and now Chevy is offering it on 14 different models, from the $12,000 Spark to the $60,000 Corvette Convertible. Technology shouldn’t just be for the wealthy, and Chevy’s addition of both systems to so many new models is good news on that front. Meanwhile, Apple’s been very clear that it wants CarPlay in as many vehicles as possible—because of course it does. (Toyota, by the way, is the only car company that doesn’t plan to support Apple CarPlay.)
I come from a Chrysler family but must admit that I like Chevy’s approach to technology. It’s turning cars into roving wifi hotspots, making car computers less like jazzed up radios and more like actual computers. And it’s not just making these features a luxury. It’s making them a necessity.