Taking CarPlay for a Spin


Earlier this year I bought a 2016 Kia Sorento. It was a great deal for a car rife with luxury features, and one made in the USA, to boot. But like a lot of cars, the operating system that powers its in-dash console, called UVO, is pretty bad.

Last month, Kia released a software update that brings CarPlay, Apple’s in-car solution for using iOS while driving, to several recent models including mine. (Kia’s update also enables Google’s Android Auto, but I haven’t tested that yet)

CarPlay is a substantial upgrade over many aspects of the user experience of UVO, but I was surprised to find that many of my assumptions about how it works were unfounded. CarPlay is not a full telematics system; it doesn’t truly become the car’s operating system, as I had assumed, but essentially allows your iPhone to “cast” a modified version of its UI, and a select few apps, to the in-dash console. This was probably obvious to anyone paying close attention to the branding; it’s not called CarOS, after all.

Rather, the CarPlay name is meant to evoke Apple’s AirPlay living room casting technology, and while it’s more capable than AirPlay in that you can actually interact with it, it’s still quite limited. Beyond the fact that only certain apps will work with CarPlay (a reasonable restriction; there’s no good safety argument for displaying Instagram, say, on your car’s head unit), the user experience is decidedly rough around the edges and noticeably more compromised than one typically associates with Apple.

A Compromised User Experience

The most prominent example of CarPlay’s challenges may be that it looks terrible, though through no fault of its own. The display of most in-dash consoles is not of Retina quality, and as a result, the CarPlay apps and UI elements look jagged and poorly rendered. That’s compounded by the fact that, even though you can tap and swipe on the screen, the performance is sluggish and occasionally choppy.

Beyond that, I was surprised to find that CarPlay only works when your iPhone is plugged into your console’s USB port via Lightning cable. This is probably necessary for the “casting” aspect of the experience, as the CarPlay interface that you see on the console is essentially powered by your phone. But for me, it represents a step back from the ability to connect your phone to the car’s system via Bluetooth. Of course, that wireless connection really only transmits audio, but having the freedom of putting the phone anywhere in the car—and especially the ability to pass it to passengers to use—is something I missed immediately when using CarPlay.

I was similarly disappointed to realize that when CarPlay is active, your dashboard screen and your phone can’t show different apps at the same time. If you’re following directions via Apple’s Maps app, for instance, and you switch to Spotify to make a music selection, the map view on the dashboard monitor will be replaced by Spotify’s music catalog. Whether this is a safety-oriented decision (one of CarPlay’s main goals is to minimize distractions from your phone) or simply an inherent limitation of a casted user experience, it ignores real world use cases in which a traveling companion may want to use other apps while you’re driving. (The inconvenience of this behavior suggests a new rule of thumb in multi-screen experiences: if you have two screens, as you do with CarPlay, the user should be able to use them independently, even if they are linked.)

Where This Road Leads

This firsthand experience with CarPlay really helped me to understand exactly why Apple is reportedly working on its own car. CarPlay’s inherent flaw is that it’s a software solution that’s intended to work with a variety of hardware configurations, none of which are controlled expressly by Apple. This is the antithesis of what Apple prefers to do, and it shows. The user experience is the best that it can be given the reality of having to design a system for implementation by literally dozens of auto makers, it’s true. But it demonstrates relatively little of the elegance, thoughtfulness and regard for the user experience that Apple is able to pull off when it controls both the hardware and the software. If Apple regards the automobile as a growth opportunity, and obviously it does, then it can’t be happy with what it’s able to accomplish with CarPlay, nor with the many compromises it must contend with. The logical conclusion would be to control the hardware, to build its own car, where every detail is within its purview.