What is Apple CarPlay?

Bring your iPhone display onto the dashboard with Apple CarPlay

By Chris Rosamond

Life does go on without mobile phones, at least we think so. Like most people these days, we exist in a world where we are never far enough from a smartphone. We use them to tell us where we’ve been and where we’re going, and then we use them to share that information with all our friends and family. They’re our prime source of information and entertainment, and they’re increasingly central to how we spend our time and money.

You’d think driving a car might be a good time to forget you’ve got a smartphone, but unfortunately, they’re useful even when your hands are on the wheel. With navigation, Google searches, car park information, and music all available at the touch of a screen, it’s no wonder smartphones are becoming increasingly central to our motoring lives too.

Happily, that’s not through driving with one hand on the wheel and writing text messages with the other, which remains both illegal and dangerous. Instead, tech companies like Apple have developed operating systems that integrate with your car’s dashboard display screens, with a view to making relevant phone features easily - and safely - accessible when you drive.

The Apple system is called Apple CarPlay, and it allows you to connect your iPhone to your car via a USB cable or wireless connection (depending on the car and your iPhone), and access the phone’s functions via the car’s touchscreen or voice controls.

Once you’re hooked up to a car with CarPlay fitted, you’ll be able to see a variety of familiar iPhone apps appearing as tiles or buttons on your car’s main dashboard display screen. Apple designers have maintained the iPhone’s distinctive graphics, so the car’s display will look a lot like a giant version of the phone screen you’re so familiar with, which makes finding the apps easier on the go.

You can use the car's controls to access the apps, as well as Siri: a voice command button (pictured below) on the steering wheel of CarPlay-equipped models activates Apple's assistant, so you can control apps and dictate text or WhatsApp messages without taking your eye off the road. You can also set it up so your car will read out received messages to you instead of having to read them yourself - the fewer distractions the better.

In addition to Apple's Music, Podcast, audiobook, and messaging apps, there is an increasing number of third-party apps available with CarPlay, including Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, and BBC Sounds. You'll never need to worry about directions, thanks to Apple Maps, as well as Google Maps and Waze, which crowdsources live congestion information from other users - as long as your phone is running the latest operating system.

If you decide that you want to return to your car's menu system, then it's usually as easy as pushing an icon on the touchscreen.

Virtually every modern car is available with Apple CarPlay, as well as Android Auto - a similar system for owners of Android phones. Once installed, it's always available, unless it's a BMW: the German company charges a subscription fee to use the technology: if you don't pay up, you lose the functionality.

Until recently, CarPlay could only be used by plugging your phone in, but an updated version is now being rolled out in the latest cars, which allow you to connect wirelessly. Most of these vehicles also include wireless phone charging pads, so you can leave the white cable at home.

How can I tell if a car has Apple CarPlay?

While the amount of new cars available with Apple CarPlay compatibility has grown exponentially over the last few years, the tech is still not universal, and as such you may just want to confirm a particular model your interested in features CarPlay.

We've picked out some of the best cars with Apple CarPlay, but there are plenty of other models available that also feature phone connectivity. Be sure to check the precise model and trim level of the car you're looking at, as many manufacturers might offer Apple CarPlay as an optional extra with lower trim levels.

When you do connect your phone, the car will normally display a message asking for permission to activate CarPlay if the vehicle has the software fitted.

What features does Apple CarPlay have?

The features are really limited by the number of apps that work with CarPlay. Most of your phone’s apps will not be displayed in the car. Games, for example, are too distracting to be played on the dashboard.

  • The Phone app is shown as standard. You can scroll through your contacts and dial a number on screen, or use voice control to make a call. New voicemails are shown as alerts and can be played back to you.
  • The Messages app will alert you when a new text arrives, giving you the option to have it read out. You can reply (or send a new message) by dictating through Siri. It will be read back to you before being sent. WhatsApp is also CarPlay-compatible.
  • Apple's Maps app will work as a sat-nav, giving you turn-by-turn directions, avoiding traffic jams and highlighting useful destinations, just as it would on your phone. This will use some of your data allowance.
  • Music streaming is available through Apple's Music app, which allows you to select playlists, albums, artists, and songs. However, the images and text are much larger, so it can be time-consuming to manually scroll through each one. The app works much better with voice control, when you dictate what you want to listen to, and is much less distracting. You can also stream using Spotify, Amazon Music, and Google Play Music.
  • Other apps supported by CarPlay include Apple's Podcasts and Audiobooks, as well as BBC Sounds, and maybe more noteworthy in a post-pandemic world, Zoom and Teams.
  • You're not just stuck to Apple's Maps app, if you have other preferences, Google Maps and Waze have since been added to the list of supported apps.

Which phones are compatible with CarPlay?

The iPhone 5 is the oldest version of Apple’s smartphone to work with CarPlay. All of the iPhones released since then are also compatible.

What if I don't want to use Apple CarPlay?

You don't have to. Every manufacturer fits standard software to their vehicles. This is what you see when you start the car. If you choose not to use CarPlay when you plug in your iPhone, then you'll still be able to stream music or make handsfree calls using the vehicle's software.

Even if you do opt to use CarPlay, then the manufacturer software is just a button click away. Typically, you just need to press one of the function buttons, such as Radio, Media, or Nav, to close the CarPlay display and bring back the original one. If you change your mind, there's usually a CarPlay menu option that allows you to switch back to the Apple display.

If your car is fitted with sat-nav, then you'll be able to choose to use a mapping app or your vehicle's system. An in-built sat-nav is likely to be better integrated with the car - displaying directions next to your speedometer, for example - while an app may have better live traffic data.

You can navigate with the car's sat-nav and stream music through CarPlay by switching between the software. Some cars - like the Volvo XC90 - make this simpler by displaying a split-screen. By showing CarPlay on one part and the car's own software on the other, you can see directions from Volvo's sat-nav and display song information from Apple's Music app at the same time.

Do Android phones work with Apple CarPlay?

CarPlay doesn’t replace the car manufacturer’s software, so you can still pair any phone and make handsfree calls or stream music without using CarPlay. In reality, you'll find that most cars with CarPlay have Android Auto too, which provides an equivalent experience.

Does Apple CarPlay work with Bluetooth?

The first vehicles with CarPlay required you to plug your phone in with a lead, but the first wireless systems are starting to appear. The new BMW 5 Series was the first car to offer CarPlay over a wireless connection, and has been followed by the new Mercedes A-Class. Third-party stereos that can be fitted to your car are also starting to offer the feature.

Is Apple CarPlay safe?

Road safety organisations continue to advise drivers to keep their eyes on the road, and avoid any unnecessary distractions, which would include composing a text message from behind the wheel - even if it is done with voice control.

The system has been designed with safety in mind - which is why you’re only allowed to use a limited number of apps, the symbols are large and voice control is the easiest way of carrying out many functions.

Most of the apps are relatively uncontroversial too - relating to navigation, music, and audiobooks.

However, there is increasing evidence that making handsfree calls can be distracting. And although the CarPlay system is legal because it doesn’t require you to hold your phone while driving, you can still be prosecuted for not being in proper control of the vehicle if the police think you’re distracted from driving.

Can I add Apple CarPlay to my vehicle?

Yes. The software is fitted to several aftermarket devices that allow you to upgrade your car and its music system to the very latest technology.

Alpine, Kenwood, and Pioneer make systems with CarPlay technology.