What’s the role of tomorrow’s CarPlay?

One of the most unexpected announcements at WWDC was probably Apple’s preview of the next generation of CarPlay, which will apparently include deep integration with automotive subsystems that allow Apple to take over some, or all, of a car’s in-car interface.

For a company that famously doesn’t discuss forthcoming products, it was an interesting move. Cars that support this new version of CarPlay won’t be announced until late next year, which means the odds of someone driving a new car with this level of CarPlay integration before sometime in 2024 are pretty low. This is a far-off product demo the likes of which Apple hasn’t made in years.

Of course, the auto industry moves slowly. And this is a product announcement that’s fraught with politics, too, because any car company that prides itself on its own in-car interface design would presumably feel bad if the iPhone simply took that design and threw it away.

And yet… this evolution of CarPlay makes sense. Our phones are personal in ways our cars just can’t be, because we’re always with our phones but not always in our cars. When I see cars with their own built-in maps and navigation, I always roll my eyes because no matter how slick their interfaces and how recent their map updates, I’m pretty confident that the maps app on my phone is slicker and contains better data.

That’s why CarPlay (and for those on the other side, Android Auto) is a good idea, and why car companies that don’t allow smartphones to connect to their interfaces are allowing their ego to override the simple act of doing the right thing for their customers. (I appreciate Tesla’s love for its home-built interface, but letting me control Overcast or Apple Music via a CarPlay window would make me like their interface more, not less.)

Beyond the hold-outs, though, there’s another problem I can see with this CarPlay-enhanced future we’re apparently headed for, eventually: namely that CarPlay—at least as it’s currently defined—doesn’t actually solve any fundamental problems for carmakers. This new CarPlay might create an Apple-designed interface for many (or all) of a car’s controls, but since the car also needs to operate without an iPhone present, the carmaker will still need to build its own interface. And at that point, we’re back to carmakers being so proud of their interfaces—not to mention entirely aware of how much it costs to build them—that they’re less likely to hand over the interface to Apple.

Google addressed this problem with something called Android Automotive, which is basically a version of Android that’s designed to run on hardware in a car and provide an interface for the car’s systems. Many of Apple’s declared partners for the new CarPlay have also announced support for Android Automotive.

One possibility is that cars running Android Automotive will be able to connect to iPhones and allow the new version of CarPlay to replace the Android Automotive interface with its own. Some early Android Automotive cars already offer CarPlay support, so it’s not a stretch to imagine carmakers using the customizable open-source Android variant as a vanilla implementation—and then letting iPhone users replace it at will.

Alternately, Apple could make a CarPlay equivalent of Android Automotive, a base-level CarPlay interface that works in a car even if an iPhone isn’t attached. Carmakers would get the reflected shine of an Apple user experience, and their cars would be functional without a paired iPhone. Of course, a paired iPhone would be what would make them shine.

Or perhaps despite all of Apple’s big talk, it’s actually a hard sell to get carmakers to embrace CarPlay and let Apple take over their instrument clusters and hardware controls. By claiming that nothing will happen on this front until late next year, Apple has some time to figure out how to make it all work.

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