Apple Watch CarPlay

My next new car probably won’t have CarPlay. I’ve reached this decision in part due to automakers’ slow crawl to put CarPlay in vehicles that you can actually buy today. While 2015 may bring the feature to more vehicles on the road with more than 30 automobile brands committed to ship CarPlay in the future, we’re still not there yet and the roll out is slow.

More influential, though, is my experience using aftermarket CarPlay in my current car for several months convincing me that CarPlay’s features are not yet where they need to be. As I noted in my hands-on review last fall, CarPlay introduces a new set of problems while trying to make using your iPhone in the car safer and easier.

So if CarPlay isn’t ultimately the answer to creating a better iPhone experience on the road, then what is? I’m convinced the Apple Watch will be better suited…

Pebble. In addition to coming to this conclusion based on my day-to-day experience with CarPlay, I’m also drawing from my past experience with using a Pebble smartwatch since I’ve never worn an Apple Watch. I started wearing a Pebble watch shortly after they arrived at Best Buy in July 2013 until just before WWDC 2014 when I sold it ahead of potential a “iWatch” announcement.

Admittedly, I kept the Pebble in airplane mode most of the time to avoid too many notifications and preserve the battery life, but I would always fire up the Pebble before a lengthy trip. The ability to glance at a phone call and message notification on my wrist and know if it needed my immediate attention without having to take my phone out of my pocket offered convenience and a peace-of-mind. With its own set of limitations, the Pebble was far from perfect, but with a mic, speaker, and Siri, the Apple Watch is set to address many of those.

iOS 8. CarPlay goes much further by allowing you to interact with phone calls and messages from the built-in display in your car, but you quickly run into limitations. Aside from Siri sometimes being a cranky voice assistant with a hearing problem, Siri can’t yet send or play back voice messages introduced to the Messages app in iOS 8, so CarPlay can’t either.

Messages Siri

Instead, when someone sends you an audio clip, Siri walks you through the process of hearing your new message only to tell you that it is an attachment. Siri even has the nerve to ask if you would like to reply to the attachment. It’s the same experience you would get if you received a photo or a video, which understandably Siri can’t relay to you, but audio messages are much easier to send and playback while driving than speech-to-text dictation and text-to-speech interpreting.

That’s where Apple Watch comes in.

Audio Messages. Communication is one of the selling points for the Apple Watch alongside timekeeping, health and fitness. As such, the Apple Watch delivers on supporting several different ways of communicating with Messages including audio messages. Below you can see some of Messages on Apple Watch as demoed in September:

As seen on Apple Watch’s overview page, iOS 8-style audio messages can also be exchanged.

After wrestling with dictation through Siri with CarPlay a number of times over the last few months, I’m looking forward to relying instead on the Apple Watch and audio messages later this year.

Apple Watch + Maps

Apple Watch + Maps

Dictation. Siri on the iPhone may have improved in recent cycles, but relying on it to translate your speech into a text message while driving can be more trouble than it’s worth. (An example from earlier this week: Siri interpreting “Do we have a heating pad?” as “Do we have a meeting at?” before I gave up after three or four deliberate attempts; I think Siri is tuned to think about meetings.)

Hey Siri. Aside from the suboptimal experience using Messages, CarPlay just generally isn’t yet up to speed with Siri and iOS 8. Hey Siri, a feature introduced with iOS 8 that allows you to prompt the voice assistant using that specific command while your iPhone is connected to power, has issues with CarPlay.

From my testing, it seems the iPhone itself is listening for the command, not your car’s mic, as it usually doesn’t work if your iPhone is covered. Once the command does activate Siri, it typically interrupts itself before you can make your request.

The Apple Watch, however, interfaces wirelessly with the iPhone and features Hey Siri support when you raise your wrist. You don’t have to hit just the right spot on the CarPlay display, just raise your wrist and talk to Siri.

Expense. There’s also a pricing angle to the Apple Watch being better suited for the road than CarPlay. At the moment, aftermarket solutions offer the quickest way to add CarPlay to your car, and head units with support cost anywhere from $600 to over $1200 depending on the display quality. While some models of the Apple Watch may exceed even that—we only know the starting price—the Apple Watch has a lower entry price of $349 and may even offer a better experience.

Apple Watch + Music

Apple Watch + Music

Wired vs. Wireless. Months after first installing CarPlay in my car, I find myself relying on Bluetooth rather than CarPlay about 50% or 60% of the time. Having to connect your iPhone to Lightning and wait for it to enter CarPlay mode while agreeing to the safety warning on your car display every single time is a less than optimal experience. My head unit also supports Bluetooth, although only the audio is projected, not visual elements from apps like Maps. For quick trips around town, though, it often doesn’t seem worth the 15-20 seconds or so it takes to set up CarPlay each time.

My iPhone automatically connects wirelessly to Bluetooth, and I can just keep it in my pocket and control audio playback from my car’s display. CarPlay is smart in that it relies on the iPhone to project content to it rather than being a separate iOS device in your car, but it’s certainly not as seamless as wirelessly connecting. The Apple Watch also uses this model; it will always be with you and connected.

Safety. Staying alert and not distracted and the most important thing about driving, and CarPlay’s goal is to keep your eyes on the road and off your iPhone. Relying on Siri and an optimized user interface on your car’s screen tries to accomplish this, but the difficulty using Siri often counters this goal, as you may expect, and for me, the distance of the display on the dash and it’s visibility in bright environments creates issues.

Apple Watch addresses this by placing a Retina-class display on your wrist, much closer and much more optimized for outdoor use than many of the CarPlay-compatible screens shipping today. Using a screen in a car will never be as safe as simply driving, but I believe the Apple Watch might get it right more than CarPlay again in this area.

Having the Apple Watch on your wrist and relatively centered with your line of sight makes quick glances less jarring than looking downward to the right to the display on the dash. The experience will be similar to using a dedicated GPS unit placed similarly on the windshield line of sight rather than further below your view of the road on the dash.

Of course, this could all be a moot point if governments restrict smartwatch usage while driving in the same way smartphone usage is rightly prohibited by authorities in some parts of the country. Still, I believe smartwatch usage in many cases is less distracting than using a car’s built-in display, which are becoming more available on newer cars.

While there’s still a lot to learn about the Apple Watch once it debuts later this year, and CarPlay will surely improve over time, I’m eager to see how the Watch fulfills the shortcomings of the current version of CarPlay. Based on what we already know about the Apple Watch and my experience CarPlay, I’m confident the combination of using the Apple Watch and Bluetooth in the car will hit a sweet spot missed by CarPlay. I’ll still have CarPlay in my current car, so I’ll know for sure later this year.

When Pioneer rolled out CarPlay to its aftermarket units, I was very eager to add Apple’s car feature to my own car, but as I begin thinking about my next car, I’ll likely let Apple Watch be the bridge between me and my iPhone on the road and worry less about some of those CarPlay issues.

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