What Is Apple CarPlay?

img1408937893 1553188611501 jpg Apple Car Play | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

Apple CarPlay is a feature in new cars (and some aftermarket car stereos) that allows you to control and view certain iPhone- or iPad-based apps through the dashboard’s media system, including moving-map navigation functionality.

Related: What Is Android Auto?

What Kind of Apps?

One could argue that the mirroring of navigation apps on the car’s dashboard display is CarPlay’s most important feature because any car stereo equipped with Bluetooth can play phone-based audio if you control it through the phone itself. CarPlay can provide in-dash turn-by-turn navigation using maps that are always up to date and supplemented with the latest traffic data, unlike “native” navigation traditionally built into cars, whose maps and data feeds may require a subscription or manual update. Though Apple CarPlay made its debut in 2014, iOS users worldwide really cheered in September 2018 when the feature began to support Google Maps and Waze rather than just Apple Maps.

CarPlay also enables hands-free telephone calls and uses voice-to-text functionality, and vice versa, so you can hear text messages read aloud over the car stereo and respond to them without taking your hands off the steering wheel or eyes off the road. Because police in some jurisdictions consider touching one’s smartphone while driving a violation, this removes some of the risk (though not necessarily the mental distraction) and the legal jeopardy associated with texting or talking on the phone while driving.

Apart from these features, CarPlay’s growing list of supported apps is dominated by streaming-audio services like Pandora, Slacker Radio and SiriusXM Radio, which the system displays on the dashboard with familiar iOS icons and menu structures. See the current list here.

How Does It Work?

The overwhelming majority of CarPlay integrations, even in today’s new cars, require you to connect your iOS device to the car with a Lightning cable, which activates an icon on the car’s display. Once you select it, the rest is as elementary as an iPhone menu. While Bluetooth is used to stream audio, the cable is necessary for navigation data, and it also provides power. Wireless CarPlay has begun to appear in some models from BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz that have built-in Wi-Fi capability. This provides the greater data transfer rates that previously required the cable.

The stated goal of CarPlay is to make it safer to use your device while driving, so it relocates control to the car’s display, which works best when it’s a touchscreen, though cars with separate controls that operate a touchless display also support CarPlay. You can also control the system using Siri voice-activation by pressing a designated button on the steering wheel.

Which Cars Offer Apple CarPlay?

After several years, the simpler question might be which vehicles don’t offer CarPlay or its Google counterpart, Android Auto. Even the biggest mass-market holdout, Toyota, began to offer CarPlay in some 2019 models. See the current list here.

Can I Add CarPlay to My Current Vehicle?

Unless you buy an aftermarket stereo, your chances of adding CarPlay to your car are very, very slim. Once or twice when automakers have promised the feature would arrive later in a model year, they’ve told us earlier buyers could eventually get their cars upgraded, but this is rare. If Apple’s list says your make, model and year was eligible but it doesn’t seem to be present, check with a car dealer to see if your car is one of the exceptions. Bear in mind that eligibility doesn’t guarantee that your car was equipped with CarPlay, as explained below.

How Much Does It Cost?

In most cases, CarPlay is free, and the only cost is any associated data use, but that doesn’t mean all versions of a car get it. CarPlay might be optional, or come only on upgrade media systems or in higher trim levels. Ironically, in the early days, sometimes the only way to get CarPlay and its free navigation solution was to buy an optional upgrade audio system that also included a native in-dash navigation system.

Note that BMW is an exception that has charged buyers for CarPlay as a stand-alone option and is now treating it as a subscription, an approach that may or may not survive.

CarPlay itself doesn’t use data, per se, so if you’re playing music stored on your iPhone, data usage should be negligible. But if you’re using a streaming-audio or navigation app, it will use as much data as it would if the phone were sitting in a cradle serving the same purpose without being connected to CarPlay.

How Well Does It Work?

Both CarPlay and Android Auto are good enough that we’re irritated when a test vehicle arrives lacking either feature. Native navigation originally had a significant edge because of its rooftop GPS antenna and a backup system called dead reckoning that would keep the icon of the car moving on the map even if the GPS signal was lost in a tunnel or canyon — natural or urban. But improvements have helped CarPlay in these regards, as well, and the functionality is always evolving and updating — which can’t be said about most of the rest of the cars that host CarPlay. It’s not out of the question that CarPlay and Android Auto will prompt automakers to get out of the native navigation business.

However, there are glitches from time to time, and it seems to vary with both the car and phone in question. If both are running proven operating systems and firmware, it’s usually pretty stable.

We’re less sure about how well future phones will work with the earliest CarPlay-supporting vehicles. If processor demands increase, it’s possible older models won’t be up to it. Let’s hope Apple takes this into consideration.

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Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

Photo of Joe Wiesenfelder
Former Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a Cars.com launch veteran, led the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE. Email Joe Wiesenfelder

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