Apple has announced that the latest incarnation of its mobile operating system, iOS 10, will bring new functions to the firm's CarPlay software. In particular, the biggest update is greater functionality for the Apple Maps app.
For the first time, Apple Maps will be able to show turn-by-turn navigation instructions in a car's instrument cluster - much like many built-in sat-nav systems already can do. It's a big step towards making CarPlay feel less like an afterthought and more integrated into the vehicle - and it's something that competitor Android Auto has been doing for a while.
As well as this, Maps for CarPlay will be able to suggest landmarks along a route, and show predicted traffic along the route. If traffic backs up, Maps will suggest a new route, and for the first time users are also able to swipe around the map while navigating.
Apple is also opening up its voice-controlled digital assistant, Siri, to be used by outside developers. The company says developers could 'use Siri to control CarPlay apps' - potentially using the excellent voice recognition software to control more functions in car, such as changing a music playlist.
Key smartphone functions like voice calls, contact info and music streaming have been widely available via manufacturers’ own in-car interfaces for years, of course. But if you want to enjoy ‘maximum connectivity’ with your smartphone then systems like Apple CarPlay are the way to go.
Simply put, Apple CarPlay is software built into a new car’s infotainment system that allows you to operate many of your iPhone’s features and apps via the car’s touchscreen display. It’s much safer than operating your phone when it’s mounted in a cradle, especially if you use the Siri voice recognition feature, and unlike using a hand-held phone while driving, it’s perfectly legal!
You can also use steering wheel controls, or other relevant dashboard switches depending on how your car’s controls are configured.
The phone-to-car connection is hard-wired using the cable you’d be plugging-in anyway if you were using your car as a glorified phone charger. Future versions of Apple CarPlay will use WiFi or Bluetooth connectivity, we’re told.
CarPlay is compatible with all iPhones equipped with a lightning connector – which basically means anything from an iPhone 5 up, but specifically includes iPhone 5, iPhone 5c, iPhone 5s, iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. When is your upgrade due?
Siri is the voice assistance feature offered by the iPhone, and when connected to CarPlay it allows you to find contact numbers, listen to voicemails and will read out messages. You can also dictate responses and send them without taking your hands off the wheel.
Siri also gives you access to iTunes for music, podcasts and radio, as well as various third-party apps like Spotify. Navigation is catered for with Apple mapping, giving you turn-by-turn directions, traffic conditions and an ETA. Again, you can use Siri to help plan journeys.
It’s an evolving situation, and not all the carmakers who’ve signed up for CarPlay make it available on all models yet. But the list of manufacturers who install the technology includes Audi, Citroen, Ferrari, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Porsche, SEAT, Skoda, Volkswagen and Volvo.
If you are not in the market for a new car, you can also buy aftermarket navigation/audio head units that are pre-loaded with CarPlay – they’re currently available from Alpine and Pioneer.
Volkswagen reckons it’s the first manufacturer to offer a choice of three switchable smartphone interfaces. Its latest Discover Navigation system – a high-end option being introduced widely across its line-up as models are refreshed – boldly offers Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink connectivity.
Many other manufacturers seem to be adopting the ‘either or’ approach with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and anyway the roll-out process is slow, so for now you’ll need to shop around to find your perfect smartphone match.
But as the technology develops, more carmakers will be following VW’s lead and catering for everyone.
The basic features of the two rival systems are broadly similar, but dedicated iPhone users will prefer the simple and refined CarPlay interface, which mimics the look and feel they’re accustomed to.
Android Auto uses the live update card information system used by Google Now.
Music features naturally reflect the systems’ origins too – so CarPlay uses iTunes but also connects to Dash Radio, Stitcher and Audible, while Android Auto leads with Google Play Music, but also enables Spotify and Radioplayer.
Both rival systems handle navigation and mapping effectively, but many users will be instantly more comfortable with the Android Auto’s Google Maps system, as it’s so familiar from their desktops.
While CarPlay supports Apple’s own messaging system, Android Auto can handle messages from Google Hangouts, KiK, WhatsApp and Skype to name a few.
You’ll probably already own a smartphone when you buy your next car, and that will define your choice of in-car operating system.
In terms of functionality the two systems are very similar, but CarPlay focuses on simple, clean, intuitive user journeys while the Android Auto strength is a more open platform for third party apps and content.
It’s a highly subjective area, but if forced to choose we’d go for Android Auto with Google Maps and access to multiple messaging apps.