Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi speaks about CarPlay on stage during Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference in San Jose, California on 6/5/2017.
Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Images
In the early 2010s, automakers and their suppliers were excited about creating sophisticated apps for the dashboard of cars that went beyond a CD player and a tiny LED screen.
In partnership with companies like Microsoft, automakers began offering map, music, and roadside assistance services, often bundled into an upgrade package. They joined large consortia to create industry standards for connecting smartphones to cars.
Then Apple came along and changed everything.
Apple introduced CarPlay in 2014 to integrate the iPhone and the dashboard of a car. Since then it has been ubiquitous in new cars.
Globally, over 80% of new cars sold support CarPlay, Apple said last year. That equates to around 600 new models, including cars from Volkswagen, BMW and Chrysler. Toyota, one of the longest-standing holdouts, started including CarPlay in 2019 models.
It is also a top feature for many motorists and car buyers. 23 percent of new car buyers in the US say they “must” have CarPlay and 56 percent are “interested” in CarPlay when buying a new car, according to a 2017 study by Strategy Analytics. If Ford’s eagerly anticipated electric F-150 goes on sale, it will support CarPlay.
Apple has been able to line up between customers and automakers and ensure that its interface is the one every iPhone user wants while on the move. It is an underrated triumph for one of the most successful companies in the world. CarPlay does not contribute any direct Apple revenue or profits. But it ensures the continued loyalty of iPhone users and opens the way for Apple to enter the auto industry if it wants to expand.
The power of the smartphone
Control your music easily in CarPlay with iOS 13.
Most cars use an infotainment operating system based on Linux, BlackBerry’s QNX, or Google’s Android Automotive to run 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 runs on these infotainment operating systems and enables iPhone owners to access their most important apps more securely while driving than looking at their phone. With CarPlay, users can go to Apple or Google Maps, play Apple Music or Spotify, or dictate a text message to send home. All processing is done on the phone itself.
CarPlay and a competing Android program, Android Auto, are not car operating systems. It really is phone software, said 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 is essentially a client software client that just renders things from your phone to your infotainment system’s display,” said Fitzgerald.
Many users find this to be all they need.
When users have both CarPlay and an integrated system, they tend to use CarPlay. 34% of CarPlay users surveyed by Strategy Analytics in 2018 said they only use CarPlay in their car, and 33% said they use CarPlay primarily. Only 4% of 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, a cable was required to connect your phone to your car. In 2015, Apple started supporting Bluetooth wireless connections so users can start CarPlay by simply getting in 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 joining a standards group to help spread the feature to more automakers.
Google has similar software called Android Auto that extends its Android operating system into the car’s dashboard. CarPlay and Android Auto are not mutually exclusive – a car that supports one usually supports the other. It’s popular because its Android app has been downloaded 100 million times in 2020.
When automakers realized 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, to which most of the top automobile manufacturers and the most important suppliers belong, has developed Mirrorlink, an open standard for connecting smartphones to vehicle systems. It was introduced in 2011 but was quickly superseded by Apple and Google.
Samsung, the biggest supporter of the standard and that too owns a major dashboard supplier, stopped supporting Mirrorlink in its phones last year. No other major Android brand supports it yet, and the consortium’s website only lists a few older devices as supported devices.
A big leap to self-driving cars
The new dashboard mode in CarPlay.
Mack Hogan | CNBC
Apple’s success with CarPlay explains the auto industry’s interest in rumors that Apple is planning to build its own car. If Apple has been so successful in adopting the dashboard, the company may be able to turn that into a competitive vehicle.
Since 2014 it has been said in media reports that Apple is at least researching the software for a self-driving electric vehicle. Earlier this year, Hyundai did said in an official statement that it was in talks with Apple about making its car before going back, most likely due to Apple’s strict confidentiality requirements. Hyundai eventually said it was no longer in talks with Apple.
Outwardly, automotive managers showed confidence but respect for the challenge an automotive Apple could pose. The Volkswagen boss said he was “not afraid” of Apple entering the market. The BMW boss said he slept peacefully at night in response to questions about Apple’s plans. Toyota CEO warned that making a smartphone is much different than making a car.
Apple’s final plans remain unclear. According to a Reuters report, Apple could still choose to sell software and hardware – an autonomous driving system – to automakers instead of developing its own vehicle.
However, if Apple were to get into the auto world, it would require a fundamentally different strategy than CarPlay.
CarPlay is mainly about making the iPhone more desirable. It also offers other benefits to Apple, such as: For example, Apple Music subscription enhancement – 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 revenue.
But CarPlay per se is not a money maker. Right now, CarPlay is free in most new vehicles, from base models to luxury SUVs. BMW used to charge users a monthly fee to access CarPlay, but stopped doing so in 2019 after customers complained.
Apple says does not charge automakers for using the software. It’s not a licensing deal. (If it did, Apple could pool it at $ 750 per unit and sell 9 million units by 2025, generating $ 6.5 billion in revenue, Suva estimates.)
Apple could use its foothold in the car to support more of its ambitions. It already uses its App Store sales platform to encourage software developers to tweak their apps for the car, in categories like finding a car charger, ordering food, or finding a parking space. These features would be an integral part of an Apple in-car experience. Apple also collects data necessary for CarPlay to operate, and even if that data is anonymized to ensure user privacy, Apple gives Apple a lot of raw information about what people do in their cars.
But CarPlay couldn’t power a self-driving car that requires various chips and special hardware that is qualified for use in the car.
If Apple were to sell software to self-driving car makers, it would take a different form from CarPlay. Google’s auto industry fragmentation is a good example: it builds Android Automotive as its car operating system, Android Auto as its CarPlay competitor, and funds the development of Waymo, a self-driving technology and auto service company that is now a sister company of Alphabet.
Still, CarPlay’s success could create a built-in demand for an Apple Car – or at least ensure that consumers don’t dismiss the idea as crazy.
Apple typically unveils updates to its CarPlay software at its annual WWDC developer conference, which begins June 7th this year.