Apple’s CarPlay is Competing In a Crowded Car Tech Category, And Industry Analysts Take a Wait–and–See Stance

Apple Inc. last week announced CarPlay, a technology platform that more tightly integrates its iOS mobile device operating system in automobiles, boosting the number and type of iPhone apps that can be used and controlled via the auto’s in–dash display, voice commands and steering wheel buttons. It is the production version of a concept named “iOS in the Car,” which Apple described last June at its Worldwide Developers Conference, and the first autos with CarPlay built–in will be on dealer lots later this year, the company said.

The announcement, made at the 2014 Geneva International Motor Show, was accompanied by CarPlay demonstrations in vehicles from Ferrari SpA, Daimler AG’s Mercedes–Benz and Volvo Car Group. In addition, Apple promised other automakers will bring CarPlay to market later, including BMW Group, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia, Mitsubishi Motors, Nissan Motor Co., PSA Peugeot Citroën, Subaru, Suzuki and Toyota Motor Corp.

But despite the iPhone’s strong smartphone market share, auto industry analysts contend, CarPlay’s dominance is far from assured. Automakers have compelling alternatives in similar technologies from other suppliers, as well as strategic motivation to continue developing their own proprietary smartphone integration platforms. For the foreseeable future, the experts said, in what was already a highly fragmented technology sector, CarPlay will be just one more choice among many.

Apple defines CarPlay’s functionality

According to Apple’s official description of CarPlay and its functionality, the technology will bring:

  • The ability to use the iPhone’s built–in Siri voice–activated virtual assistant to access contacts, make phone calls, return missed calls or listen to voicemails, have incoming text messages read aloud, and dictate responses to messages.
  • An advanced navigation system that uses the iPhone’s built–in Maps app and the vehicle’s in–dash display. It will “anticipate destinations based on recent trips via contacts, emails or texts, and provide routing instructions, traffic conditions and ETA” (estimated time of arrival), Apple said. “You can also simply ask Siri and receive spoken turn–by–turn directions, along with Maps, which will appear on your car’s built–in display.
  • Support for third–party audio apps, including Spotify and iHeartRadio, apart from the iPhone’s stored music, podcasts, audiobooks and iTunes Radio.
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Photo Credit: Ferrari SpA

It will be offered as a free update to the iOS 7 mobile operating system, and is specifically compatible with the iPhone 5, 5s and 5c — models equipped with Apple’s Lightning connector port.

Once the iPhone is connected to the vehicle’s built–in USB port with a Lightning cable, CarPlay is initiated on the device and its user interface is sent to the vehicle’s in–dash display via a digital video link. Then, the interface can be manipulated using voice commands or whatever touch controllers the automaker has designated. To carry out the user’s commands on the iPhone, data from the vehicle are sent back to CarPlay via the cable link. 

Automakers design distinct implementations

Apple’s underlying technology aside, each automaker will implement CarPlay in its own way.

Ferrari, which said it has been working with Apple on CarPlay for the past two years, this week became the first automaker in the world to bring the technology to market — in a revised version of the FF, the Italian marque’s four–wheel–drive four–seater, which both debuted in Geneva and went on sale Tuesday. Its execution includes a dedicated CarPlay button to the right of the in–dash touchscreen display for toggling between the feature with its standardized Apple user interface and Ferrari’s own car functions and their menus.

“We will be doing more good work together in the near future,” said Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo about the automaker and Apple. He noted that the other car Ferrari unveiled at Geneva, the new California T, will be the next model to be equipped with CarPlay.

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Photo Credit: Mercedes–Benz

Mercedes–Benz demonstrated CarPlay in Geneva in a 2015 C–Class. In its setup, a controller wheel is used to navigate through CarPlay’s functions, rather than a touchscreen; this is the same controller used for the marque’s COMAND and mbrace2 telematics and infotainment systems.

The C–Class is slated to go on sale in the U.S. in September, although Mercedes–Benz has not promised to have CarPlay available at that time; the automaker has only pledged to roll out CarPlay by the end of this year.

“We are working intensively at integrating [CarPlay], in order to be able to be the first German premium [automaker] to offer the solution to its customers, by the end of 2014,” a spokesperson for Daimler stated in an e–mailed response to an inquiry. “We will communicate more details on our roll–out schedules closer to market introduction of CarPlay,” the spokesperson added.

Volvo showed the most iPhone–like CarPlay user interface in its demonstration vehicle, the Concept Estate, which the automaker also used to preview its own all–new “in–car control system” — a tablet–like interface that replaces the usual selection of buttons and knobs on the vehicle’s center console, to access and control everything from heating, ventilation and air-conditioning to entertainment and telephone functions.

The centerpiece of Volvo’s implementation is a large portrait–oriented touchscreen, which recognizes the same swipe and pinch commands already used with the iPhone and other smartphones or tablets, and which also interacts with the digital instrument cluster behind the steering wheel. 

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Photo Credit: Volvo Car Group

The layout of the touchscreen includes a notification band at the top, digital climate controls at the bottom, and what Volvo describes as navigation, media and telephone “tiles” stacked in the middle. When any of the tiles is touched, it expands to display more information or choices, but the remaining tiles remain visible and accessible in a compressed format.

Steering wheel control buttons and voice commands complement the touchscreen.

Volvo’s all–new XC90 SUV will be the first of the automaker’s models to feature this new control system when it is launched toward the end of this year, and other all–new models will be equipped with it later.

CarPlay will be included in all of those new vehicles, Volvo said, noting that it “integrates seamlessly with the…new user interface.”

Analysts are left wondering

Some of CarPlay’s functionality is not new or unique; automakers have already been offering similar — though less deep — iPhone integration through their own proprietary systems and technologies developed by auto industry consortiums.

For example, BMW, Ford, GM, Mercedes–Benz and many other automakers provide integrated access to a wide variety of apps either resident on an iPhone or another smartphone running the Google Android mobile operating system (OS), or served to the vehicle from the Internet via the vehicle’s own built–in cellular data service. These include streaming audio and navigation apps. Honda currently offers access to Siri for reading aloud of incoming text messages and adding events to the iPhone’s Calendar app.

In January, a consortium of automakers and technology companies named the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA) was announced at the 2014 International CES (consumer electronics industry trade show), with the mission of developing an Android–based platform for automotive infotainment systems and having automakers adopt Android as an embedded OS. The initial membership roster included Audi, General Motors, Honda and Hyundai.

Meanwhile, last month at the 2014 Mobile World Congress (MWC) cellular communications industry trade show, another group named the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC) — which brings together automakers, smartphone app developers and consumer electronics companies — announced new movement in support of MirrorLink, its own OS–agnostic standard for car–smartphone connectivity. Developers of three apps (Glympse, Coyote and Parkopedia) were the first inducted into the CCC’s new MirrorLink Developer Fast Track program, which enables them to more easily make their apps MirrorLink–compatible.

And this month at the Geneva auto show, both Volkswagen and PSA Peugeot Citroën showed vehicles equipped with factory–installed MirrorLink–enabled infotainment systems. 

Consumer demand for such systems is strong and growing.

According to research results released by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) on March 6, more than half (59 percent) of online driving–age U.S. consumers considered such technology an important factor when purchasing a new vehicle within the past year, and almost half (47 percent) expressed interest in “using apps designed for easier and safer use” in a vehicle. Furthermore, according to ABI Research, worldwide shipments of automotive infotainment systems that work with streaming audio apps are expected to exceed 66 million units, or about 93 percent of all “connected car infotainment shipments,” by the end of 2019.

Apple is the dominant player in the smartphone market.

During the three–month period ended last January, 129.4 million people in the U.S. owned smartphones, accounting for 55 percent of all mobile phones in the country, according to a new report from research firm comScore. Apple was the top–ranked brand among those smartphone owners, with 37.8 percent market share. Samsung was ranked second, with 21.4 percent market share; HTC ranked third with 9.7 percent market share; Motorola ranked fourth with 8.6 percent market share; and LG ranked fifth with seven percent market share.

At the same time, however, Apple’s iOS is not the most prevalent smartphone OS.

Cumulatively, comScore reported, Android prevailed among smartphone OSes, with 52.3 percent platform market share. (The platform market share for iOS was the same as the iPhone’s device share, at 37.8 percent.)

Thus, analysts said, CarPlay won’t necessarily accrue the strongest share in car connectivity, either.

“Despite Apple getting in the limelight with CarPlay, more relevant is what the Open Automotive Alliance will do,” said Dominique Bonte, practice director for telematics, infotainment and M2M (machine to machine) at ABI Research in London, UK. “Once more, all eyes are on Google and the OAA to unlock the full potential of the connected car and automotive application ecosystem.”

Moreover, “Third party developers are looking for a common platform such as MirrorLink spanning the entire connected car industry. For the [automakers] it’s about having little choice other than supporting all possible standards,” Bonte said.

“What the connected car industry needs most is less fragmentation, not more. Having a separate standard for each handset brand is missing the point entirely,” he added. 

“CarPlay won’t make cars smarter, but it will make them more informative and entertaining,” said Thilo Koslowski, vice president and distinguished analyst covering automotive connectivity, infotainment and telematics at Gartner, Inc., in San Jose, Calif. “Automakers will benefit from this,” but, by “granting Apple access to their vehicles and having Apple create and control the digital lifestyle experience in the car,” he said, they also risk becoming mere device makers in Apple’s iOS ecosystem. They’ll “have to broaden their approach and partnership strategy…have to work with Google, as well,” he said.

While “many automakers, especially premium brands like Mercedes–Benz, are also pursuing their own applications and connected vehicle offerings that don’t rely on a mobile device,” Koslowski said, “not every automaker will have the resources and expertise…and in those cases Apple and Google are saviors.”

Indeed, Mercedes–Benz’s press release regarding CarPlay emphasizes that automaker’s long history of integrating smartphone connectivity in its vehicles, and notes that the company was a founding member of the CCC in 2011. “As soon as Google brings its own in–car infotainment system to market, Mercedes–Benz customers will also be able to enjoy the world of Android in their cars,” the document affirms.

Ultimately, it will be the automakers themselves who determine the winner in the automotive infotainment race, Koslowski asserted, adding that it is in their own self–interests to choose themselves.

“Automakers need to remain in control of the connected driver experience, and need to ensure that their partners like Apple and Google won’t dominate that experience,” Koslowksi proclaimed.

“The arrival of CarPlay in the market marks the beginning of a phase during which multiple car makers will adopt and enable all emerging smartphone connections — Google, Apple, MirrorLink — simultaneously. This is a shift away from the single platform approach — [Ford] SYNC, Chevy MyLink — capable of supporting multiple smartphone types,” said Roger Lanctot, associate director of the global automotive practice at Strategy Analytics in Newton, Mass. “The market will eventually shift back, but it is hard for car makers to say ‘No’ to Apple or Google.”

How CarPlay is sold will be a major determinant of its success or failure, Lanctot said. “If car makers can position CarPlay as a step–up solution to help sell sophisticated infotainment systems, then it will be a success. If CarPlay is just an inexpensive alternative to the step–up in–car infotainment, then it will be a disappointment,” he said.

“The key question is how much focus Apple will maintain on this effort,” Lanctot added. “For example, when the next generation of iPhones arrives will CarPlay 2.0 be ready? And if anything goes wrong with CarPlay, will Apple take the blame and deliver a fix in a timely manner?”

“If not,” Lanctot declared, “the CarPlay platform may ultimately be relegated to the status of just another fancy app in the car.”

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