When GM (GM) demonstrates another company’s connected car technology, it does everything it can to make sure the infotainment system doesn’t overshadow its ride. That’s why it demoed Apple’s CarPlay in Chicago alongside two 2016 Chevy Corvettes.
GM’s top-line sports car wasn’t on hand solely for flash though. The Corvette was one of the first 4G cars GM debuted this year, and among the first vehicles to get the upgrade allowing it to support both CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto. I was one of the few to get a hands-on demo of CarPlay in the Corvette and even test out the system with my own iPhone.
Though I didn’t spend enough time with CarPlay to formulate a full opinion, my initial impressions were positive, although I did experience a glitch with Apple Music. There’s nothing mind-blowing about CarPlay’s interface or design, but its simplicity is what’s most compelling about it. The last thing you want to do when driving in rush-hour traffic is deal with complex or unfamiliar dashboard controls. Anyone accustomed to using iOS will have no problem simply plugging their phone in and hitting the road.
First, I should probably explain what CarPlay is and what it isn’t. It’s not an actual operating system for the car the way iOS is for the iPhone. In fact, if you never plugged an iPhone into a Chevy, you’d never know CarPlay lived in your dash. In addition to the navigation apps found in the Corvette’s MyLink display is an icon labeled “Projection,” which is where CarPlay shows up after plugging your iPhone into the car’s USB port. That icon is also the placeholder for Android Auto, which would activate if an Auto-enabled Android device was plugged in, and presumably could host other smartphone projection interfaces like MirrorLink.
“Projection” may sound like a funny term, but that’s literally how CarPlay works: Any iPhone linked to the car projects a scaled-down version of the iOS interface into the infotainment screen and then maps its touchscreen controls. There are no native iPhone apps in the car, and CarPlay itself actually runs inside of your phone. It even uses the iPhone’s data plan for Internet connectivity and its compass and GPS sensors for Apple Maps navigation.
When GM intern Darren Hardy plugged her iPhone 6 plus in, the song that was playing on her phone almost immediately started playing on the Corvette’s speakers (a nice touch), and a second later the CarPlay icon appeared as an option the MyLink screen. CarPlay didn’t actually take over the infotainment system as many suspected it might. Instead you access it like you would any other infotainment app.
Once users log into CarPlay, they’re presented with a screen that has eight big, yet very familiar, icons. The top row is devoted to Apple’s (AAPL) core CarPlay services: Phone, Music, Maps and Messages. The bottom row starts with a convenient “Now Playing” placeholder icon, and the remaining three slots are for third-party CarPlay-enabled apps, in this case: CBS News, Audiobooks and iHeartRadio. Drivers can also side scroll the whole screen to see other apps, just like you would on the iPhone.
At the bottom left hand corner is a big Siri button, which will likely wind up being the primary navigation method. All of the individual apps have the same familiar interfaces you’d find on the iPhone, although in most cases some of their functionality was missing. For instance, Messages has no on-screen keyboard, thereby forcing you to use Siri’s voice dictation feature.
The Maps app also limits what you can do with touch commands. You can’t pinch to zoom in or spread your fingers to expand the map. This might just be a limitation of MyLink’s touchscreen, but it seemed designed to prevent you from distracting yourself by exploring Maps the way you would on a phone.
As on the iPhone Apple’s new music service is integrated into your phone’s iTunes library, so if you ask Siri to play an artist or song it will first search your phone before reaching out to a cloud, potentially saving you data charges. Unfortunately, I had issues when I plugged my own iPhone 5 into CarPlay, though. I’m not an Apple Music subscriber, but when I asked Siri to search out artists stored in my phone, it recognized my commands but couldn’t find any individual tracks. I was able to find and play those same artists, however, by manually selecting them in the Music app.
Third party apps like Spotify and iHeartRadio looked and worked like you would expect. The big difference between them and Apple’s services is they can’t be controlled by Siri voice commands. This might wind up being a key differentiator as Apple pits its own services against its developers. When driving, voice commands are much more convenient—and safer—than scrolling through artist lists or tapping your way through nested menus.
Very few of my apps actually showed up in the CarPlay menu, which doesn’t mean they won’t appear in the future. Developers need to certify their apps for CarPlay, which may take some time. There are some apps that will never make it into Apple’s dash like YouTube and Netflix. Apple and U.S. automakers don’t want you watching videos while veering through traffic.
Though GM is putting CarPlay in its 4G cars, you don’t need a 4G data plan to use it. CarPlay connects to your regular operator through the iPhone and draws from your regular data plan. But Hardy had an interesting setup in her Corvette. She connected the phone to the car’s internal Wi-Fi hotspot, which in turn connected to AT&T’s LTE network. The car’s high gain antenna actually gets a much better signal than the iPhone. You’ll have to pay for that data separately, of course, but if you’re already an AT&T subscriber, CarPlay may be a compelling reason to add your GM car to a shared data plan.
Apart from the music glitch, I found the whole CarPlay setup quite impressive, not because the design and features blew me away, but precisely because they didn’t. Interacting with CarPlay was almost exactly like interacting with my iPhone. Not only is CarPlay’s familiarity important, but so is its accessibility. My demo was in the Corvette, but GM plans to make CarPlay and Android Auto available fleet-wide in the coming years. That means in-car app and navigation services won’t just be available to drivers shelling out for high-end infotainment packages or subscribing to service bundles; they’ll be available to anyone who has a smartphone.