Apple's Carplay success paves the way for automotive ambitions

Apple introduced CarPlay in 2014 as a way to integrate the iPhone and the car's dashboard, and it has since become ubiquitous. In the early 2010s, car manufacturers were eager to create advanced applications for car dashboards that went beyond the compact disc player and LED display. In partnership with companies like Microsoft, automakers have begun creating services for maps, music, and roadside assistance.

They got into big leagues to create industry standards for connecting smartphones to cars, and then Apple came along and changed everything. And Apple said last year that more than 80 percent of new cars sold around the world support CarPlay. CarPlay works on nearly 600 new models, including cars from Volkswagen, BMW, and Chrysler. CarPlay is also an important feature for many drivers and car buyers.

And 23 percent of new car buyers in the US say they should own CarPlay. And 56 percent said they would be interested in getting CarPlay when buying a new car. And Apple was able to insert itself between customers and car companies and ensure that its interface is the one that every iPhone user wants while driving. This represented a victory for one of the most successful companies in the world.

CarPlay doesn't contribute to direct revenue or profits to the company, but it does ensure continued loyalty for iPhone users and gives Apple a path into the auto industry if it wants to expand.

Smartphone power

Most cars use a Linux-based infotainment operating system, QNX, or Android Automotive to power a display built into the car's dashboard. Infotainment systems often contain software, and car companies sell wireless subscriptions and other upgraded features. CarPlay works on top of these infotainment operating systems and allows iPhone owners to access the most important apps while driving. With CarPlay, users can launch maps, music apps, or dictate a text message to send. This processing takes place on the phone itself, and it's like using your car's screen as an external display for your phone. And when users have both CarPlay and a built-in system, they tend to use CarPlay.

Apple has also expanded CarPlay over the years to make it more valuable to iPhone owners. And when CarPlay first came out, it required a wire to connect your phone to your car. And in 2015 Apple began supporting Bluetooth wireless connections. While it took a few years for new cars to support this feature, it has now become widespread. Last summer, Apple and BMW announced that users could use an iPhone to unlock car doors or even start the engine.

The iPhone maker is sharing a set of standards to spread the feature across more automakers. And when it became clear to automakers that the computing power and software in smartphones were improving far more quickly than they could improve their built-in infotainment systems, they tried to tweak it. The Automotive Communications Association, which includes most of the major auto manufacturers and suppliers, has developed Mirrorlink, an open standard for connecting smartphones to vehicle systems.

Mirrorlink was introduced in 2011 but was quickly overtaken by Apple and Google. Samsung, the biggest supporter of the standard, stopped supporting Mirrorlink in its phones last year. No other major Android brand still supports it, and the Etihad website only lists many older devices as supported.

A big leap for self-driving cars

Apple's success with CarPlay explains the auto industry's interest in rumors that it is planning to build its own car. And if Apple is very successful in capturing the dashboard, perhaps the company can invest that in a competitive car. Since 2014, media reports have said that Apple is at least exploring software for a self-driving electric vehicle. Earlier this year, Hyundai said in an official statement that it was in talks with Apple about making its own car before it backtracked.

Apple's final plans remain unclear, and it could still decide to sell an autonomous drive system to automakers, rather than design its own car. But if Apple were to enter the world of cars, it would require a fundamentally different strategy than CarPlay. CarPlay mainly aims to make the iPhone more attractive. It also offers other benefits to Apple, such as making Apple Music subscriptions more valuable.

People may want to play music in their car, but they need an easy way to control it while driving. But CarPlay by itself is not a winner. It is currently available for free on most new cars, from basic models to luxury SUVs. BMW used to charge users a monthly fee to access CarPlay but stopped in 2019 after customers complained. Apple does not charge automakers for using CarPlay because it is not a licensed business.

Apple could use CarPlay as a foothold to further its ambitions, as it collects data needed to run CarPlay. Although this data is anonymized to ensure user privacy, it gives the company a lot of raw information about what people do with their cars. However, CarPlay cannot operate a self-driving car, which requires different chipsets and qualified specialized hardware for use in the car.

And if Apple plans to sell an autonomous driving system to makers of self-driving cars, it takes a different form than Carplay.

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