1 September 2016

Apple CarPlay – the lowdown

Hands up if your smartphone is so important to you that it has pretty much become an extension of your body and you simply couldn’t cope without it. This describes so many people of all ages these days, even grandparents, but it’s especially true with younger people, rather like Carrot’s policyholders. Unless you’ve been in a news vacuum, you’ll know that using a mobile phone in any way while driving is against UK law. For people who find app downtime so hard to bear and with 39.5% of phablets in the UK up to October 2015 running on Apple iOS according to an organisation called Kantar, Apple’s answer to this first-world ‘problem’ is called CarPlay.

What is Apple CarPlay?

Put simply, it’s a system that connects compatible Apple iPhones with cars’ infotainment touchscreens, enabling many of the iPhone’s functions and apps to be used on the move more safely. Apps specifically designed for CarPlay are being launched all the time, with nice big buttons that are easy and safe to operate.

What connection do you need?

Apple CarPlay doesn’t currently work over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi as of Spring 2016, so you’ll need an Apple Lightning-to-USB connector cable. Once connected, your iPhone’s text messages, call logs, contacts, app data and certain other info will be synced with the car. To keep you safe and legal, you won’t be able to use your actual iPhone while it’s connected to your car, but that’s fine, seeing as you can see the relevant apps on the dashboard touchscreen anyway.

How do you operate it?

As you’d expect, it varies slightly between different car models, but in general, this is how:

  • Using Apple’s ‘Siri Eyes Free’ voice control system that allows hands-free operation of certain iPhone functions and apps once you’ve pressed the button on your steering wheel
  • With the play, volume, skip and other audio controls found on the steering wheel
  • Using the colour infotainment touchscreen built into your car’s dashboard
Carrot Insurance telematics young drivers blog - news - Apple CarPlay guide - advice


What sort of stuff can you do with Apple CarPlay?

Like with any software these days, Apple constantly improves CarPlay, but the main things it can be used for include:

  • Making calls and managing your phone’s address book
  • Reading out incoming SMS text messages over your car’s speakers and letting you dictate replies by speaking in the direction of a microphone somewhere in your car
  • Programming Apple’s Maps app, which cross-references your address book to cleverly predict where you might be going
  • Playing music and listening to the radio and podcasts via Apple’s iTunes platform

What does Siri Eyes Free do?

Siri is Apple’s clever digital assistant which is brainy enough to figure out what you’re doing, such as sitting at home or driving your car, so it tailors the information and suggestions it gives you and the commands it’ll respond to according to your whereabouts. As long as you’ve got a phone signal, Siri Eyes Free used with Apple Maps makes navigating a piece of cake and the Siri virtual assistant can be told to play certain songs and used to make calls and interact with SMS text messages whilst on the move, all without taking your hands off the wheel. 

Carrot Insurance telematics young drivers blog - news - Apple CarPlay guide - featured


Can Apple CarPlay be used with third party iOS apps?

CarPlay is currently officially compatible with various non-Apple apps including Audible, Pandora, NPR, CBS Radio, Overcast Spotify, iHeartRadio, Dash Radio, Slacker Radio, Stitcher, Rdio, At Bat2, Audiobooks.com, VOX and Overcast.

Is every iPhone compatible with Apple CarPlay?

To work with Apple CarPlay, your iPhone needs to run at least iOS 7, so phones from the following list should all work:

  • iPhone 5, 5c and 5s
  • iPhone 6, 6 Plus, 6s and 6s Plus

Can you convert an old car to work with CarPlay?

Yes, but getting an aftermarket system fitted is considered a ‘mod’ in relation to your Carrot Insurance policy, which would therefore be invalidated, so unfortunately converting an old car to be compatible with Apple CarPlay isn’t an option for our customers.

Aren’t manufacturers’ own infotainment systems better?

They might be at the time they’re introduced, yes, but because technology moves ahead so fast these days and cars have much longer ‘life cycles’ than mobile phones, in-house car infotainment systems can soon become outdated. Using a system like Apple CarPlay means you’ll be automatically updated to the latest apps, features, functionality, software and firmware as soon as they go live.

Can Apple CarPlay take over the car’s native controls?

If you’re thinking of functions like windscreen wipers, climate control, cruise control and the rear window demister, the answer is no – Apple CarPlay can’t be used to take over stuff like this and politely mutes itself whenever your car is sounding (or even speaking, as with some Renault models) a warning.

Which cars support Apple CarPlay?

New or improved models are announced all the time by car manufacturers so the list is constantly changing, as you’d expect. Most brand new cars are compatible with Apple CarPlay and many cars registered in the last few years support it, too. Apple publishes and updates an official list but we’ve stuck to mentioning smaller cars in this article as we know few if any of our young drivers can afford anything exotic. All the cars in this list are ones with a 16 registration plate:

  • Citroën C3
  • DS 3
  • Mercedes A-Class
  • Vauxhall Adam, Corsa
  • Peugeot 208
  • SEAT Ibiza, Leon
  • SKODA Fabia
  • Suzuki Baleno
  • Volkswagen (VW) Beetle, Beetle Cabrio, Fox, Polo
Fiat 500 Apple CarPlay Uconnect


What issues might you run into using Apple CarPlay?

Like any other technology, it isn’t perfect. Without a decent mobile phone signal, CarPlay won’t work, so if you live in the middle of nowhere or regularly drive through places with signal blackspots, it may not be for you. Apparently the Siri voice-recognition digital assistant can be like a sloth at times, taking up to 10 seconds to obey commands, and a few other CarPlay bugs have been reported on forums, but Apple is normally good at sorting stuff out.

Is CarPlay better than Android Auto?

Google has unsurprisingly developed its own phone-mirroring system for cars called Android Auto, which is Apple CarPlay’s main rival and uses Google Maps and other native Android apps. Some people are loyal to Apple, others to Android, so it’s all down to personal preference, a bit like arguing whether Eastenders or Coronation Street is the best. We’ll blog about Android Auto some other time soon.

Carrot Insurance telematics young drivers blog - news - Apple CarPlay guide - Vauxhall Intellilink gateway


What are SmartLink, Mirrorlink™, Ford SYNC 3 and other systems?

If you’re confused, you’re not the only one. Many car manufacturers have developed their own ‘gateway’ systems that let you choose between Apple CarPlay, Android Auto or the firm’s in-house smartphone system and apps. For example, Vauxhall’s gateway interface is called IntelliLink, Ford’s is called SYNC, which is now in its 3rd generation i.e. SYNC 3, and SKODA’s latest system is called SmartLink, which replaced their previous Mirrorlink™ system in May 2015.

If you’ve got any questions about Apple CarPlay, Android Auto or a manufacturer’s gateway interface, or have any stories to share about using one of these systems, we’d love to hear from you on Twitter or Facebook

Oliver Hammond

Written by Oliver Hammond

Oliver is an established freelance motoring writer, published journalist and automotive copywriter based in Manchester. He regularly reviews cars and covers events and launches as editor of petroleumvitae.com and his articles appear in various magazines each month. No relation to Richard from Top Gear, he’s got a weakness for luxo-barges, proper 4x4s and oddball cars.