It just works.
Those are the three words you should remember if you are considering purchasing a new car anytime soon. In my recent test of the 2016 Cadillac CTS—a highly refined and powerful sedan with a beautiful new design that screams “Audi is in trouble”—it was very obvious that GM (and many other automakers like Honda and BMW) are ready to embrace a new way of providing technology to drivers, a way that is simplified, elegant, and highly functional.
Not to exaggerate the issue, but the technology—called Apple CarPlay—is groundbreaking because of how it duplicates the features on your iPhone. Android makes an incredibly similar tech called Android Auto that works the same way. It’s all about usability. You connect your phone using a USB cable, and the car touchscreen shows you some familiar iOS icons. There’s one for controlling your music, one for maps and navigation, one for texting by voice.
I drove the CTS for a week and used CarPlay extensively. In some ways, it’s hard to write about because it doesn’t do anything that Earth-shattering. We’re not talking about new sensors that control the steering in the car or autonomous driving functions. Instead, it’s a bit staid and predictable. Since I recently moved to a new heavily-populated area, I’ve been absolutely amazed at how people use their phone while driving. It’s insane. The timing is perfect for something wholly functional and usable to force us to keep our eyes on the road. CarPlay is familiar and easy. It’s a row of unadorned icons that help you control your phone.
Of course, most of the beauty behind CarPlay is related to Apple Siri, the voice-activated assistant. Automakers have tried to build their own voice-control features, but they usually force you to say specific phrases and follow a bunch of prompts. Siri actually worked in cars long before CarPlay (I remember testing it in a Chevy Spark a few years ago) because you could sync over Bluetooth and, using Siri Eyes-Free, still use the service.
However, in the CTS, your iPhone screen is essentially mirrored in the display. You can long-press the voice-activation button (which normally works with the Cadillac CUE system) to talk to Siri. I tested this a dozen times or more. I asked for directions, set reminders, played The National, and even send text messages without ever looking at my phone or the dash.
I was surprised when I received my first text and the CarPlay system notified me and read me the message. It might sound cheeky to say this, but I really believe CarPlay could save lives. People are texting when they drive more and more. It’s the new drunk driving. The human brain is incapable of doing two distinct things at once. If you ever text and drive, pay attention to what happens to your vision. There’s a dark cloud that obscures your peripheral view. You might as well put a bag over your head. Seriously. It’s sad to think people do it anyway.
Other than the texting functions, once again—this is not about some brilliant new innovation, and yet it totally is. The brilliant new innovation is that you might not drive into a guardrail while you use CarPlay (or Android Auto). You might get in fewer accidents.
Sure, I wanted a bit more functionality—it would be nice if I could say more complicated phrases to Siri that involve some artificial intelligence. You can do a ton, though. I said “play the latest Serial podcast” and it started playing over the CTS speakers. I said “let Josh know I am running late for our meeting” and Siri guided me through sending a new text. I wasn’t able to say complex things like “adjust my Google calendar by a few hours” or “book a flight to Austin” because Siri can only handle fairly rudimentary tasks (at least for now).
The CTS is also blissfully unaware of CarPlay. It’s not like you can adjust the temperature in the car or adjust the cruise control. However, this is where things get interesting. What if you could? What if your phone became the brain of your car in every way possible? You could talk to the guy in the car next to you, roll the windows down by voice, play a multi-point navigation trip and have the car not only show you pictures of what the hotel looks like but also suggest a gas station on the way. You could find out about engine trouble. You could order a burger, and the car would plan the route, pay as you drive through, and let your wife know you already ate dinner. In other words, your car would follow and understand your intentions.
Automakers have been trying to piece this together for years now, but CarPlay is a step in the right direction because a phone is now much more like a computer. Since we can benefit from many of the functions a phone provides in daily life when we are not driving, it makes sense for the innovations in automotive tech to take place (at least in part) on our phones.
True artificial intelligence in cars—making suggestions on how we drive, warning us about imminent dangers, connecting us to other drivers, providing a way to pay for things—will come faster and in a way that’s more usable if it comes to us on a smartphone. I realize the sensors will be on the car, that the engine and safety functions are embedded into the car, but a phone is the best interface into those systems, one that can be the same in every car.
So is it overstating things by saying that Apple CarPlay could change the way we drive? That CarPlay could make us much safer on the road? That the automakers also have the goal of making in-car systems much more intuitive and are happy to let Apple and Google assist them? Sure—since that frees up the car companies to focus on the safety features and the engine.
Future cars—including the possibly of an actual Google or Apple-made car—will follow a path payed out by Apple CarPlay. Keep it simple and we might not plow into a guardrail.