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Apple's CarPlay Could be Great, But Delays are Ominous

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high-tech, distracted driving
Apple CarPlay is poised for a frontal assault on the auto-based infotainment world, if the company can only get the product on the market.

Just what is CarPlay? It's Apple's new in-car infotainment system, which is designed to integrate seamlessly with, of course, your iPhone. That means you can access your phone, messages and emaiils, plus a carefully curated number of apps-- from iTunes to iMaps (with Spotify, Stitcher, BeatsAudio and podcasts). You name it.

Android, of course, has its own version, called Android Auto that does the same basic thing, using either voice commands or a touchscreen, like CarPlay. CarPlay doesn’t work with iPads, by the way, and only with the iPhones that use the Lightning connector.

Mercedes-Benz was anticipating CarPlay in 2014, but now it's looking to 2015. (Mercedes-Benz photo)Here's the catch, though: it's overdue, and that's playing havoc with automakers' schedules. Hyundai, for one, is talking about customers taking delivery of Sonatas, and then getting CarPlay as a later software upgrade. 

Think back to the Steve Jobs era, where the need to make the iPad/iPod/Mac “insanely great” trumped considerations like making the shipping date. That’s OK, if all you’re doing is pissing off some tech nerds, but when you’re dealing with automakers it’s a different story. They can’t hold up a new model because the stereo isn’t ready, and that’s effectively what’s happening here. But Apple says the delays aren't its fault.

CarPlay was supposed to be in a bunch of vehicles this year, including Hyundai, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Jaguar/Land Rover, but forget it at this point. “CarPlay won’t be available by the end of this year, but in 2015,” says Mercedes. “Full CarPlay functionality will be available later in 2015,” adds Volvo.

Apple says the CarPlay delays aren't its fault. (Apple photo)A Hyundai spokesman, Miles Johnson, told me, "Our guys are working hard on the validation process. We're on target--we officially said the 2015 model year, though some executives may have said the 2014 calendar year. And we're moving forward."

It could be that these are just teething pains. Apple says bluntly that its end of CarPlay was ready in March with IOS 7.1--the delay is with automakers trying to integrate the system into their cars. Still, the hold-up is interesting in light of Apple’s ferocious competition from Google’s Android Auto. Apple has seen its share of the mobile phone business go up and down in the U.S., but it’s now well below 50 percent, and Android is commanding in the global market. It looked like CarPlay would be the first responder, in cars in 2014, but now that advantage is gone. A bunch of automakers, from Chevy and Chrysler to Mazda, Jeep, Audi and Nissan, have hedged their bets and signed up with both suppliers and plan to give their customers a choice.

Many of us are already accessing our mobile phones in the car, playing songs from Pandora, listening to Bluetooth phone calls and traveling via the phone’s GPS. But doing that today requires a lot of fussing with the phone itself; the new systems should push the actual handset into the background.

Android Auto should match CarPlay point for point, including with GPS (though no Siri). (Android photo)I’ve spent time with CarPlay in a Hyundai Sonata, and thanks to Siri’s intuitive voice commands it worked phenomenally well. Unlike most voice-based systems, CarPlay actually understands conversational English and can bring up a song, tune in a radio station, call up friends and colleagues, write hands-off text messages and read back the incoming mail with satisfying precision. Apple is going to tightly control the apps that work with CarPlay, so don't expect to have more than a few of its 1.2 million third-party offerings at your command.

And if you're worrying about it, no, CarPlay shouldn't be upping the ante with distracted driving. It does an end run around the web, so you won't be updating your Facebook status on the fly. If you want to find a restaurant, instead of accessing the Internet, you're just going to ask Siri, and she'll find a list of places (probably finding the info on the web, but delivering it to you safely).

The infotainment systems in many of today’s cars don’t work for me, because they’re too fussy and distracting for easy use. I want big volume control knobs, simple-to-program radio presets and a smooth interface between them. I haven’t tried Android Auto, but it’s likely to be competitive with CarPlay (and may be cheaper).

The Tesla Model S, with a 17-inch screen looks like an Apple iPad on its side, points the way forward for auto infotainment. Expect not only that the center stack will get big, but that it will feature something a lot like your current’ phone’s home screen. I'm excited, and I hope these Silicon Valley boys will end up playing nice with the car guys. Here's a closer look at CarPlay at work, in a Ferrari no less:

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high-tech, distracted driving

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