A road trip with Apple CarPlay

With almost impeccable timing, the firmware upgrade to support Apple’s CarPlay was released for my car’s heads-up unit the day before I was set to go on a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles and drive around that unfamiliar city for the weekend. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to put it through its paces.

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The heads-up unit in question is the Pioneer AVIC-8000NEX, their flagship unit with a 7" Capacitive Touchscreen display. This comes with its own built-in navigation software, iPod controls for music either by Lightning cable or Bluetooth and even support for apps via their AppRadio technology.

Not only is it the best of the aftermarket units for running CarPlay, it also provides a pretty decent unit in its own right to compare functionality and behavior to.

 Music

It’s arguable whether the number one function of a car’s heads-up unit these days is music, or navigation, but since I still call it a “car radio” we’ll start with music.

This is a feature that CarPlay impresses with straight out of the box, providing full access to the same features as the phone’s built-in Music app, split across two apps on the CarPlay home screen: Music, and Now Playing; the latter to give you direct access to what’s playing.

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It’s hard to find any complaint here because with direct access to all your playlists and albums, with the usual Shuffle option at the top where you’d expect it, this is far in advance of anything that any unit can do via the iPod controls interface.

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If you’re into that kind of thing, you can also use the built-in Podcasts app, or install the Beats Music, iHeart Radio, Stitcher, or Spotify apps from the App Store. Unfortunately, the Pandora app isn’t CarPlay-enabled just yet, but music apps are definitely the leaders right now.

 Navigation

If music isn’t the number one function, then navigation most certainly is; it’s actually the first application featured on Apple’s own page for CarPlay so they gave it a lot of prominence. I have never driven to LA before, and have certainly never driven around this very car-centric city before, so this was definitely a road test.

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The UI is minimal at best, with an emphasis on using Siri to request directions. This actually resulted in a very hilarious exchange when first getting going:

“Drive to address of airbnb condo.”

“I’m sorry Scotty, I can’t do that while driving.”

Very droll, of course I meant “Navigate to”, but it’s one of the pitfalls of relying on voice technology; if you, very humanly, get the command slightly wrong—or Siri doesn’t recognize it properly, then you get very quickly frustrated and start concentrating on the screen and phone rather than your driving.

That little hurdle over, the directions are exactly what you’d expect from Apple Maps, pretty reasonable but not excellent. It’s nowhere near the disaster that it once was, but it’s serviceable.

However in terms of information, Apple have definitely navigated to style and not taken the better route to substance here. The screenshot above illustrates my point perfectly, with 220 miles to go, it’s about as minimal as you can get. An arrow, a straight road, and some basic information about when I’m going to get there.

The equivalent screen in the unit’s own navigation is much much richer, including details such as the current speed limit (and speed), traffic conditions along the way as a colored indicator bar, total time in the journey caused by traffic problems, lane guidance for upcoming turns, etc.

In fact on long stretches of road, the unit’s own nav helpfully zooms out and displays the bigger picture of the upcoming route, with gas stations annotated along the way (and if configured to do so, pretty much any other kind of point of interest in its database). Apple Maps doesn’t even offer an option to find the next gas station, or In-N-Out, along the route.

The unit’s own nav isn’t pretty, but it somehow manages to do it all without seeming cluttered, you can glance very quickly at it and pick up the information you need; or tap one button to make on-the-fly alterations. On CarPlay, Apple Maps isn’t just minimal, it’s practically spartan.

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At-a-glance operation is another place Apple Maps on CarPlay fails. Consider the screenshot above. The Apple Maps app looks pretty sexy on your iPhone or iPad, and If you’re looking at this on one of those, or your MacBook, it probably looks pretty okay.

But a cars heads-up unit isn’t your MacBook; the Pioneer is a top of class unit, but it’s screen and backlight still just aren’t the same quality—the brightness, contrast, and display angles are all lower. And you’re probably using your MacBook indoors, a car is driven in daylight quite a lot.

That same image seen on the unit itself just doesn’t have the clarity, it’s a mess of white and light grey that is barely visible against the background of light grey. Night mode is much better, but this is definitely an area needing a lot of improvement.

Apple have also chosen, so far, not to allow any third-party mapping applications access to CarPlay at this time. A Waze app, for example, is sorely missing—and amongst everyone I’ve spoken to, at the very top of their CarPlay wishlist.

 Messages

So what about things that you can’t usually do while driving, like sending and receiving text messages?

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Apple’s solution to this is to rely on Siri to read out the messages as they arrive, and allow you to voice dictate your replies. Which on the surface seems like a reasonable approach.

The implementation is a little haphazard though; firstly notification of messages is generally silent, relying on you actually looking at the screen to see one, and then tapping the notification and confirming (either with a tap or by voice) that you actually want it read.

Reading is in Siri’s usual voice, but for some reason seems to follow the volume of the Music app rather than the Maps, so if you were just listening to something in the background you don’t always hear what she’s saying that clearly.

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Dictation again uses Siri.

About the nicest thing I can say about it is that it really isn’t the best in class voice dictation technology out there. If I was being honest, I would say that it’s almost close to useless. After several attempts at dictating a simple message, I gave up, frustrated, and very distracted from driving.

I have a British accent, but after almost four years living in the US, I use American words for most things and sometimes even the American-style pronunciation for things. There just isn’t a setting in Siri for that, and setting the Language to English (United Kingdom) still disables various local features that, living in the US, I would want to use.

Add that to the general noise of driving, and the dictation just doesn’t work out. Other dictation technologies out there work so much better, that this isn’t an intractable problem, it’s just another area that Apple really need to put a lot of work into.

 General usage

The general integration of CarPlay into the radio is well implemented. Plugging the phone in prompts you to unlock with your passcode or Touch ID so you can use CarPlay, and keeps the phone unlocked while connected. You can still flip back and forth between the unit’s own nav, own music interface, and CarPlay using the usual Map and Mode buttons.

For the most part CarPlay simply replaces the unit’s (awful) AppRadio feature, the home screen button for CarPlay even appears at the same place as the AppRadio button used to.

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As far as your iPhone is concerned, the unit is simply an additional display and touch screen that it can make available to apps using a special SDK. You don’t need firmware upgrades to support a new app, you simply get a software update to the app you already have on your phone via the App Store as usual, and now it appears on the CarPlay home screen.

This approach has a few surprising consequences too. If you pick up your phone while using navigation, you see that it’s running the Maps app. If you then switch to the Music app on your phone, the CarPlay display also switches to the Music app as well.

If you switch to an app that isn’t CarPlay enabled, the CarPlay display returns to the home screen until you switch back to an app that is. That includes the Camera app, which somewhat ruined my first attempts to capture CarPlay in operation. Fortunately a little lateral thinking led to me seeing what happened if I took a screenshot the usual way, and happily finding an image of both the phone screen and the CarPlay screen sitting in my Camera Roll.

It also means that all state is carried with your phone when you unplug from the car—including the ever-funny being told to “make a U-Turn” as I walked into the restroom at a gas station.

For the most part it was reasonably stable, although there was a period where all on-screen controls stopped working. Difficult to determine whether the heads-up unit or phone was to blame there.

 Conclusion

CarPlay is a great technology, but needs a lot of work.

I’m not going to use it as my primary “home” in the car, and I’m certainly not going to use the navigation.

But I will follow it with interest, and check it out after each new update, to see if it’s improved.

 
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