Apple Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi speaks about CarPlay onstage during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California on June 5, 2017.
Josh Edelson | AFP | fake images
In the early 2010s, automakers and their suppliers were excited about creating sophisticated dashboard applications that went beyond a CD player and a small LED screen.
By partnering with companies like Microsoft, automakers began offering map, music, and roadside assistance services, often included in an upgrade package. They entered large consortia to create industry standards for connecting smartphones to cars.
Then Apple came in and changed everything.
Apple introduced CarPlay in 2014 as a way to integrate the iPhone and a car’s dashboard. Since then, it has become ubiquitous in new cars.
Worldwide, more than 80% of new cars sold are CarPlay-compatible, Apple said last year. That works out to about 600 new models, including cars from Volkswagen, BMW and Chrysler. Toyota, one of the longest-resisting, began including CarPlay in 2019 models.
It is also a main feature for many drivers and car buyers. Twenty-three percent of new car buyers in the US say they “must have” CarPlay and 56% percent are “interested” in having CarPlay when buying a new vehicle, according to a 2017 study by Strategy Analytics . When Ford’s highly anticipated electric F-150 goes on sale, it will be compatible with CarPlay.
Apple was able to insert itself between customers and car companies and make sure its interface was what all iPhone users want while driving. It’s an underrated triumph for one of the world’s most successful companies. CarPlay does not provide direct revenue or profit from Apple. But it ensures the continued loyalty of iPhone users and gives Apple a path into the auto industry if it wants to expand.
The power of the smartphone
Easily control your music in CarPlay with iOS 13.
Most cars use a Linux-based infotainment operating system, BlackBerry’s QNX, or Google’s Android Automotive to run an embedded display in the car’s dash. Infotainment systems often have their own music or map software, and car companies sell them wireless subscriptions and other enhanced features.
CarPlay runs on top of those infotainment operating systems and allows iPhone owners to access their most important apps while driving safer than looking at their phone. Through CarPlay, users can access Apple or Google Maps, play Apple Music or Spotify, or dictate a text message to send home. All of that processing happens on the phone itself.
CarPlay and a rival Android program, Android Auto, are not car operating systems. It’s really phone software, said Mark Fitzgerald, an analyst at Strategy Analytics. Ultimately, it’s like using your car screen as an external monitor for your phone.
“What’s in your car, when you plug it in, is essentially a software client that’s just processing things from your phone on the screen of your infotainment system,” Fitzgerald said.
Many users find that that is all they need.
When users have both CarPlay and a built-in system, they tend to use CarPlay. 34% of CarPlay users surveyed in 2018 by Strategy Analytics said they only use CarPlay when in their car, and 33% said they primarily use CarPlay. Only 4% of surveyed users say they use the integrated system in favor of CarPlay.
Apple has also expanded CarPlay over the years to make it more valuable to iPhone owners.
When CarPlay first appeared, a cable was required to connect your phone to your car. In 2015, Apple began supporting 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 group of standards to spread the feature to more automakers.
Google has similar software, called Android Auto, that extends its Android operating system to the dash of the car. CarPlay and Android Auto are not mutually exclusive – a car that supports one is generally compatible with the other. It is popular as its Android app was downloaded 100 million times in 2020.
When it became obvious to automakers that the computing power and software of smartphones would improve much faster than their integrated infotainment systems could, they tried to adapt.
The Car Connectivity Consortium, which includes most of the major car manufacturers and major suppliers, developed Mirrorlink, an open standard for connecting smartphones to car systems. It was launched in 2011, but was quickly superseded by Apple and Google.
Samsung, the biggest sponsor of the standard and which also owns a major dashboard vendor, stopped supporting Mirrorlink on its phones last year. It is still supported by no other major Android brand and the consortium’s website lists only several older devices as supported devices.
A big leap towards autonomous 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 plans to build its own car. If Apple was so successful in taking over the dash, perhaps the company can turn it into a competitive vehicle.
Since 2014, media reports have said that Apple is at least exploring software for an autonomous electric vehicle. Earlier this year, Hyundai said in an official statement that it was in talks with Apple about making its car before returning, likely due to Apple’s strict secrecy requirements. Hyundai eventually said it was no longer in talks with Apple.
Automotive executives showed external confidence but respect for the challenge an automotive Apple could present. The Volkswagen CEO said he was “not afraid” of Apple entering the market. The BMW CEO said he “sleeps soundly at night” in response to questions about Apple’s plans. The Toyota CEO cautioned that making a smartphone is very different from making a car.
Apple’s final plans remain unclear. According to a Reuters report, 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 than CarPlay.
CarPlay is primarily about making the iPhone more desirable. It also offers other benefits to Apple, like 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 itself is not profitable. CarPlay is currently free on most new vehicles, from entry-level to luxury SUVs. BMW used to charge users a monthly fee to access CarPlay, but stopped in 2019 after customers complained.
Apple says it doesn’t charge automakers for using the software. It is not a licensing business. (If it were, Apple could package it at $ 750 per unit and sell 9 million units by 2025, generating $ 6.5 billion in sales, Suva estimates.)
Apple could use its foothold 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 car apps, in categories like finding a car charger, ordering food, or finding a place to park. Those features would be a critical part of Apple’s in-car experience. Apple also collects the data necessary to run CarPlay, and even if this data is anonymized to ensure user privacy, it gives Apple a lot of raw information about what people are doing in their cars.
But CarPlay couldn’t power an autonomous car, which requires different chips and specialized hardware that has been qualified for use in the car.
If Apple sold software to autonomous vehicle manufacturers, it would take a different form than CarPlay. Google’s automotive fragmentation is a good example: it is building Android Automotive as a car operating system, Android Auto as a competitor to CarPlay, and it funded the development of Waymo, an autonomous driving technology and car service company that is now a sister company within Alphabet.
Still, CarPlay’s success could create built-in demand for an Apple Car, or at least ensure that consumers don’t dismiss the idea as insane.
Apple typically presents updates to its CarPlay software at its annual developer conference, WWDC, which begins June 7 this year.