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Why my next car probably won’t have CarPlay (Spoiler: Apple Watch)

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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  1. chrisl84 - 8 years ago

    Interesting take, time will tell if the little Apple Watch battery can handle a long car ride running audio messages and switching music tracks and what not and still leave enough juice to act like a watch when you get to your destination for the rest of the day and then for the drive back home repeat the in car controls.

    • Zac Hall - 8 years ago

      Yeah, battery life will be a concern for every Apple Watch use. Not an aspect I’m excited about.

  2. J.latham - 8 years ago

    I would imagine the CarPlay interface would be safer and easier in the car. The real question is how readily available will CarPlay end up being. It seems like most Auto manufacturers while “Committing” to putting them in cars are really just putting them in higher end cars and keeping in house options on basic/lower models. I’d still rather purchase a aftermarket rather than an Apple Watch though both need some serious attention before really being “Magical”.

    • Zac Hall - 8 years ago

      I know what you mean. For me, my position is the same even if CarPlay becomes a new car standard.

  3. Steve Rendle - 8 years ago

    Fiddle with your watch while driving….VERY SAFE

    • Zac Hall - 8 years ago

      No doubt not using anything is safest, included a classic radio, but if the Apple Watch user interface is dialed right, I’m optimistic it will offer a better experience than CarPlay, which is intended for use while driving.

    • Chance Miller - 8 years ago

      The experience CarPlay offers (in its current state) is not great for use while driving. The general moments of lag and hiccups make it anything but safe. Ideally, the Apple Watch being on your wrist and much more polished will make it safer for the car than CarPlay, like Zac said.

    • Michael Bingham - 8 years ago

      I have been in love with CarPlay since I had an aftermarket system installed. I can honestly say that I have been less distracted and more focused on the road, as a result of having quick access to the apps that matter while driving. There is the occasional bug, but I can’t imagine driving without it at this point.

    • lkernan - 8 years ago

      Exactly, i wouldn’t use my pebble that way now, let alone trying to tap and twist dials while driving.

  4. Mosha - 8 years ago

    I’ll be honest, I own a Pebble and I wear it all the time, but even while driving it was difficult to actually read anything from it unless I twisted my wrist and due to the display size it requires more focus and is in my opinion more distracting then anything that is on my infotainment system can offer.

    That being said, this could potentially be assisted with the use of speaker and Siri.

    Here’s the thing, in my humble opinion, the Apple watch really won’t remedy any shortcomings you have with CarPlay. The display size, the awkward orientation off the wrist while driving are huge problems.

    Yes,glace to the right is a slight issue, but you would assured you’ll gather a good sum of information just by the plain fact that the display and the objects are huge.

    • Zac Hall - 8 years ago

      Didn’t find focusing on the Pebble display to be an issue in my own use. I’m certain it varies from person to person though. I do find myself wishing my CarPlay display, a 6.1-inch screen, was angled toward me and either bigger or closer, not to mention the battle with sunlight, glare, and fingerprints.

  5. When choosing my next car, I will use a number of personal factors in the decision making process, Carplay will not even be on the agenda, it’s as simple as that.

    • Zac Hall - 8 years ago

      Before I used it daily it was high on the list, now it’s not.

  6. mlanders1433 - 8 years ago

    This is a really good read. im very interested in both carplay and apple watch and your arguments make a lot of sense.

    If the ultimate goal is to activate Siri, I think tapping my wrist would be easier than going for the dashboard

  7. John Roy (@johnroy) - 8 years ago

    Never buy a Gen 1 Apple product. By the time carplay is an option from the factory, it will technically be gen 2 and will have a siri button on the wheel and won’t require a cable connection. There go two of your arguments right off the bat. Meanwhile, 1st gen apple watch will be here this year with poor battery life and likely buggy software. Just going by product maturity level, your premise is wrong. Carplay exists for the exact reason that it’s meant to be used in your car. I’m going the other way and not getting a new car without it.

  8. cafesitter - 8 years ago

    Great article. I want carplay in my next car as they will fix it eventually. But today I would not use it even if I had it for two things – waze and position in light of sight – i have my iphone on the dash rght below windscreen pretty much in my light of sight. I tried factory satnav recently in a brand new nice car and had to look down it felt pretty dangerous to be honest. Car use was a major reason why I went for iPhone 6 Plus and am verry happy since. I think you have a point with apple watch but not so much tlancing at the watch as Siri – full speed on highway the phone is a little too far for understanding so talking to watch wiith eyes fiřmly on the road could be a treat solution…

    • cafesitter - 8 years ago

      Sorry for typos, line of sight not light of sight etc but I hope you get the mesning;)

  9. jedimindtrick99 - 8 years ago

    So Apple watch is going to be a translator, gotcha

  10. Leif Paul Ashley - 8 years ago

    My issue isn’t so much I want Apple Watch and don’t need carplay. Having a crappy Ford Mustang radio that is utter garbage in my 2014 mustang, I’d opt for carplay just to have a system that worked and made sense.

    That alone has my interest as the automotive manufactures apparently don’t read technical news and are still using flip phones.

  11. Darren (@DarrenButz) - 8 years ago

    Interacting with a smart watch while driving would require twisting your wrist and taking your other hand off the wheel. Have you ever used a smart watch before? Using a smart watch while driving is far more dangerous than using CarPlay. You cannot comfortably interact with something on your wrist and safely drive at the same time. With CarPlay, at least one hand would be firmly on the wheel, much safer for you and everyone else on the road.

  12. abunur - 8 years ago

    It seems that just using your iPhone directly along with a windshield or vent mount is by far the best solution. While CarPlay offers limited functionality – only some iOS apps are accessible, there are no such restrictions using your iPhone directly. Keeping the phone in a hands free mount is great for navigation, too. I’ve yet to see any automotive solution, third party or factory, that comes even close to the touch interface of iOS. Lots of cars come with bluetooth or wired capability to connect to your iPhone handsfree, and if yours doesn’t you can easily get an aftermarket head unit that does it seamlessly for around a hundred bucks – no carplay needed.

  13. Iain B (@iain_b) - 8 years ago

    Carplay was just announced in November and you think manufacturers aren’t bringing it to market fast enough? Seriously?

    When Carplay was announced in November we were in the middle of the 2015 model year. New 2016 models aren’t going to start hitting dealer lots until last spring or early summer.

    What did you honestly expect, that manufacturers would just start replacing radios in their vehicles mid-cycle just to add something like this that can wait until the next or even following year?

    Come on…

  14. Travis Williams - 8 years ago

    Not sure completely accurate about Siri. I mean on my 2012 VW Touareg, I hit the voice button (and on our X5) and it beeps, its my phone, and I can say “ready my text message”… she reads it and ask if I want to reply, do all by voice, and done pretty easily if need to.


Avatar for Zac Hall Zac Hall

Zac covers Apple news, hosts the 9to5Mac Happy Hour podcast, and created