That Apple CarPlay update has us asking all the right questions
At its yearly Worldwide Developer Conference Apple announced a massive update to CarPlay. The update is still years away from reality, but it’s reverberated around the industry for the past week and is making us all, TomTom included, ask a lot of important questions.
CarPlay is used by drivers all over the world to display and interact with their phone and its apps via the car’s central infotainment screen. Even though phones aren’t optimized for driving, CarPlay has become so popular, as drivers often prefer the experience offered by smartphones over their car’s inbuilt systems.
The update shows a significant evolution of CarPlay with the infotainment platform taking over the entire dashboard, central stack, binnacle display and passenger displays. Integrating fully with the car, it’ll let drivers see their speed, control their AC and put widgets all over the place.
Many in the tech media were taken by the announcement. Mark Gurman writing for Bloomberg says it’s “the most tantalizing announcement from this year’s developer conference.” In the words of Stuff magazine’s Connor Jewiss, the update was a “scene-stealer.”
On one hand the praise is warranted. As with anything designed by the Cupertino tech giant, the design mockups look beautiful. Apple fans are very excited about it, but others are skeptical.
Apple’s designs for its fully integrated CarPlay look beautiful. Even if there is a lot of information at the driver’s fingertips. Credit: Apple
“I find CarPlay too limiting so rarely use it, and am worried about it usurping some solid existing software from OEMs,” Chris Chilton writes for Carscoops. Others are concerned about the safety implications of phones taking over all vehicle screens and creating a highly distracting driving experience.
In its podcast rundown of the developer event, tech magazine The Verge is concerned the announcement is a gesture from Apple to take over the car’s entire dashboard and introduce a host of features that are not intended for driving. If it is, we should be cautiously skeptical of what that means. It will have implications for safety, privacy, data ownership and control of the in-vehicle experience.
What about safety?
In-vehicle phone integration systems should make driving less distracting by taking cognitive load away from the driver and allowing them to keep their eyes on the road. However, studies often find this isn’t the case. One of the reasons stems from the fact that the phone experience is merely adapted to the vehicle and is not fundamentally designed for driving.
As we’ve written before, the secret to designing great in-car user experiences is to inform the driver without overwhelming them. However, “Apple’s preview showed a car with a dizzying amount of information at the driver’s fingertips,” as Alex Hearn writes for The Guardian. Many of my colleagues have similar worries.
They are concerned about the safety critical features of a vehicle and how these will be managed by a phone that integrates so deeply with the car. How will it ensure the vehicle is safer and not more distracting? Will it be compliant with regulations like Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA)? How will it interact with ADAS features? What research has Apple done into how drivers will use the system? What will be the priority: driving experience or phone experience?
Not once in Apple’s presentation did it reference safety or how it will prevent CarPlay from becoming too distracting. The update is still years away from release so there is plenty of time to address this, but in the automotive industry where human lives are on the line, the safety of the system is already at the front of their minds.
Many car makers are working hard to reinvent their approach to software development to reimagine their digital cockpits and improve functionality without sacrificing safety.
CarPlay lets drivers display apps from their phone on their car’s central screen. TomTom makes a number of apps compatible with the platform that aim to make navigation clear, useful and non-distracting.
The in-vehicle experience will make or break sales
Carmakers are faced with a difficult choice. In one survey cited by The Verge, 79% of people said they wouldn’t buy their next car if it didn’t have CarPlay. Of course, that figure is the result of current in-car systems not being able to match the experience of the smartphone. We should expect this to change as native digital cockpits improve.
However, if Apple gives carmakers an ultimatum: it’s total CarPlay integration or nothing, carmakers risk sabotaging sales if they decide to go their own way. But that doesn’t mean they should open the door widely to the iPhone maker.
Alongside all the questions about safety, allowing CarPlay to integrate deeply with a vehicle will strip carmakers of control over their in-vehicle experience.
One of my colleagues said that once a carmaker loses control of the interactions in its vehicle, it loses control of its brand. This would mean OEMs have to work even harder to build those connections and interactions they desperately want with consumers.
It might lead to carmakers reintroducing physical buttons and switchgear to promote physical interactions with the vehicle. This would also be a benefit for safety as physical buttons are less distracting and easier to use than large screens. But it would derail the minimal, button-free trend we’re seeing for dashboards.
Other TomTom’ers further questioned Apple’s intentions here. Are carmakers going to have to surrender their entire in-vehicle experience? Will they have choice over how CarPlay is implemented in their vehicle? Are they going to have to share profits with Apple? What happens to all the driver usage data? Who will own that?
Apple currently collects anonymized data required to run CarPlay, including information about how drivers use the system. If CarPlay extends to the entire vehicle, this gives Apple an ocean of data to collect, not just about how CarPlay is used, but how the car is driven, when and where to.
Emily Schubert from Apple’s Car Experience team said during the announcement that the Cupertino tech company had been working with automakers to “reinvent the in-car experience across all of the driver’s screens.”
For those in the industry, that statement creates more questions than answers.
Apple also showed a slide with a host of car brands on it. All are said to be working with Apple on the future of CarPlay. The carmakers sound a little less sure about the whole thing.
The Verge reached out to a selection of top carmakers including, Ford, Toyota, BMW, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis. Most of them gave boilerplate responses that neither explicitly confirm nor deny that they’re going to let Apple have full access to their digital cockpits.
Polestar was unique in saying that the “next generation of CarPlay will be coming to Polestar cars in the future.” What shape that will take remains to be seen. And we should remember that when it launched the Polestar 2, it was all-in on Android Automotive. A move to a fully integrated CarPlay won’t be taken lightly.
That probably goes for all carmakers. If Apple is going to win them over it needs to be explicitly clear about how its system will integrate with vehicles. How it will ensure the vehicle is safe and doesn’t create a host of nice-looking but unnecessary distractions. How it will generate data, what data it will generate, where that data will go and what it will be used for.
Otherwise, it might lead automakers to focus entirely on their own platforms instead of providing CarPlay support. One thing is certain, it’s a big move from Apple and it’s going to encourage some big moves from carmakers too.
*Editor’s note: The opinions shared here are of individuals and not the company. We also acknowledge that TomTom makes apps compatible with CarPlay which are designed to improve the driving experience and make it safer and easier.
TomTom also offers digital cockpit products (TomTom Digital Cockpit) that seek to provide drivers, carmakers and OEMs with a highly functional in-vehicle platform that can be tailer to each brand's own experience, identity and needs. TomTom Digital Cockpit supports phone integration but does not rely on it to function.October 21, 2022, 06:30 UTC.This article has been updated to reflect the new name of TomTom’s in-vehicle infotainment platform. It is now called TomTom Digital Cockpit.
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