What's great about CarPlay and what it still needs

Recently, Ara Wagner over at Android Central talked about ways that Android Auto beats CarPlay. It's a great rundown of the advantages of Android's infotainment solution, and she makes some compelling points, particularly in regards to Google Assistant versus Siri. However, I'm not sure that the gap between the two is, overall, as wide as Ara makes it out to be.

The truth is that for a lot of us, not only is CarPlay just fine, it's actually a great solution. And with iOS 12 coming later this year, it's going to get even better thanks to some great new features.

But just because something's great for your needs as it exists doesn't mean it can't be improved, and there are a couple of major features that could really take CarPlay to the next level both for existing users, and those who haven't tried the system yet.

What's great now

The biggest thing that CarPlay gets right can be summed up in one word: simplicity. If you're using the touchscreen to interact with CarPlay, most everything you'd need to do is just a couple of taps away. Icons are big and easy to hit even when you're not looking, and the touch targets in most apps are big enough that they're also easy to hit while keeping most of your attention on the road (more on that aspect further down).

As an aside: the selection of apps that can be used with CarPlay is fairly substantial. True, more major apps on Android support Android Auto than iOS apps do CarPlay, but it's not exactly a drought, either. Everything from most major third-party music services and podcast apps to radio apps like myRadio, Stitcher, and NPR One all support the system. Even WhatsApp will read your messages, offer notifications, and let you send messages while you drive.

The other aspects of CarPlay that I love are, admittedly, under the label "Your Mileage May Vary."

Siri has always worked well for me when I'm using CarPlay. Maybe it's because I'm not trying to do as much with it while I'm driving, but Siri, as well as dictation, have always worked really well for me. Siri is always spot on when I'm playing an album or pulling up directions. It also enables some things that you can't even do with your hands while using CarPlay, like HomeKit actions. You can make sure all of your lights are off if you think you left some on, or you can set your air conditioning to start up as you get closer to home.

Another thing I love about CarPlay is navigation. While Apple Maps had a spotty launch and still isn't good enough for some, I've always had great luck with Apple's native navigation solution. With the updates it's received in the last couple of years, Apple Maps, and in particular turn-by-turn navigation, is now an essential tool for me on long trips. The navigation screen is big and clearly labeled, my ETAs are always accurate, and the lane guidance is spot-on (and a lifesaver on long highway trips).

What's coming soon

As useful and accurate as Apple Maps has been for me, the same can't be said for a lot of iPhone users. For years, people have asked Apple to allow them to use alternative mapping applications for navigation in CarPlay, and now they're finally getting their wish. Apple announced at WWDC 2018 probably the single biggest improvement CarPlay has seen since it launched: support for third-party mapping apps.

This means that you can use apps like Waze, and yes, Google Maps, to navigate instead of Apple Maps to navigate. While we'll have to wait until these apps start rolling out with CarPlay support to see how well it actually works, having this support at all is a big step in the right direction.

While third-party navigation apps are certainly the big takeaway from CarPlay on iOS 12, existing categories of apps are also seeing improvements behind the scenes. Apple has set goals of improved performance, faster startup, and smoother animations for third-party CarPlay, and I'm interested to see how developers will be able to take advantage of these improvements with the launch of iOS 12.

One of the aspects of iOS 12 that could have a big impact on CarPlay users is Siri Shortcuts, and in particular the Shortcuts app. That app, which will launch with iOS 12 this fall, lets you set up multi-step actions both complex and simple, all with a simple button press or, as you'll use it with CarPlay, a single custom Siri command. So if you're heading home from work, you can set off a command that, in one move, messages your significant other that you're on your way, opens directions home, and starts playing a favorite playlist. While I'll need to spend some more time with the Shortcuts app to set up everything exactly how I want it, I'm excited to see where it goes, particularly when it comes to using Siri with CarPlay.

What I'd like to see

While CarPlay meets my needs, for the most part, there are a few things that I still want to see from the system in future updates.

The big one here, and it's probably the single greatest advantage that Android Auto has over CarPlay, is the ability to run on the phone. While you need a compatible head unit to use CarPlay, Android users only need a mount for their phones. This is something that I'd really like to see Apple implement, despite the fact that I have a CarPlay head unit myself and am glad that I don't have to deal with mounting my phone in my car. CarPlay is a great system, and making it possible for any iPhone owner to use would be an excellent move on Apple's part. While a lot of modern cars support CarPlay, a lot of people drive older cars and don't want to have to replace their radio just to get a better interface for using their phone while driving.

Siri support also needs to be expanded. Now, I've been banging on this particular drum for a while, but Siri support needs to come to third-party media apps, if for no other reason than using them with CarPlay. And I don't mean something that you set up with Shortcuts. I mean the full-fledged, "Hey Siri, play Vide Noir by Lord Huron in Spotify" experience. Not all of us use Apple's media apps, after all. While I actually am an Apple Music subscriber, I play podcasts through Overcast and used apps like Pocket Casts and Instacast (RIP) long before that. I'd also like to start playing a radio station in NPR, again without having to set up a Shortcut. Being able to activate Siri and give a command while keeping your eyes completely on the road will always be safer than even glancing at a screen, and it's time that Apple brought about Siri intents for third-party media apps.

Final thoughts

Despite any issues I have with it, CarPlay has always been, for me, a great way to use my iPhone in my car, and miles better than having to fiddle with my phone while I'm driving if I need to do something important like look up directions. There are always improvements to be made to any piece of software, but Apple has an excellent system on their hands, and I can't wait to see what they've got coming up for CarPlay next.

Your CarPlay experience

What do you like about CarPlay, and what do you want to see for the system down the line? Let us know in the comments.

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