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Eager for an Apple Car? There’s an App for That—Sort Of

By: Bridget ClerkinJune 7, 2017
Apple's CarPlay will bring popular apps from the iPhone inside your car—with an eye to cut down on distracted driving through voice controls and limited access.

Millions of loyal Apple fans and followers let out a collective cheer last month when the tech company made the most telling—and public—signal yet that its autonomous auto ambitions were still very much alive.

But what, exactly, would an Apple car be like?

As is typical for the widely-watched Silicon Valley fixture, the speculation began nearly as soon as Apple’s return to the self-driving scene was made clear. Entire blogs have been dedicated to the subject, fielding rumors on every possible design aspect the notoriously sleek tech giant could be considering.

For those with less time to daydream the possibilities, however, there’s a glimmer of hope. A recently-released app by the company could provide an early idea of how Apple’s iOS technology could be integrated into new cars.

Called CarPlay, the app brings the software popularized in the ubiquitous iPhone straight to the infotainment centers of new vehicles.

The bubbly icons will look familiar to anyone who’s seen the screen of any i-tool: Phone; Music; Maps; Messages; Now Playing; Podcasts; and Audiobooks. And the buttons will lead to information taken directly off of whichever iPhone is paired with the program.

Unlike Apple products that come with access to the ever-expanding app market, CarPlay limits its users to the above possibilities—perhaps a nod to Apple’s commitment to less distracted driving.

Indeed, the app itself was intended to curb the dangerous habit of checking one’s phone from behind the wheel. It relies nearly exclusively on the Apple-bot Siri to operate. Drivers must tell the car what they want via voice command, allowing them to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road while accessing information.

Control over more vehicle-specific details, such as adjustments to temperature or the radio dial, will still require one to use the car’s own systems, although some automakers have added the option to access such utilities through CarPlay. Otherwise, users will have to leave the Apple app to take care of other business.

Bolstering the ease of the app is the new ability for users to plug into their vehicles wire-free. While initially requiring a USB connection to sync the auto and Apple device, CarPlay can now access the Wi-Fi hotspot of certain models to plug into the infotainment center.

Praised by wire-rejecting tech lovers everywhere, the move not only makes accessing the app easier but also increases its efficiency: By utilizing its own Wi-Fi hotspot, a vehicle can create a more formidable connection with the device, allowing it to transfer more data-intensive features directly to its screens.

Previous attempts to utilize Bluetooth technology for the information exchange proved futile after it became clear that there was not enough bandwidth to cover more data-hungry apps like navigation, which requires real-time updates to work.

Still, Wi-Fi hotspots are not yet commonly available in cars. For now, the new CarPlay system is only accessible in the new BMW 5 Series and several other of the automaker’s 2017 models.

Notoriously tight-lipped on its future plans, Apple has yet to comment on which carmakers may be the next to utilize the app. But the embrace of Wi-Fi to run its signature infotainment application may speak more loudly than the company would about its next moves; a subtle hint, perhaps, that any car produced by Apple would be USB-free.

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