Going mobile with Apple's CarPlay (and a VW)

When it comes to software like CarPlay and Android Auto, integration with on-board systems is key

Apple CarPlay

Apple CarPlay

Credit: Apple

It's no secret that when you buy a car, you get whatever already-out-of-date technology is built in. Not only that, but that technology -- likely developed two or three years earlier -- will become increasingly archaic as time passes. The result: In many cases, that overly expensive technology package is a waste of money. Knowing this, I recently bought a Volkswagen Tiguan R-line (before the recent emissions cheating scandal erupted). Despite that scam, the company still makes one hell of an SUV (and no, I did not buy diesel).

As of the 2016 model year, most car manufacturers offer vehicles that support Apple's CarPlay or Google's Android Auto, including Volkswagen. And as a longtime Apple user, I have to say, CarPlay is incredibly good. It's no wonder it's expected to gain popularity over the next few years.

Integration issues for VW

The Tiguan itself is great -- speedy, great handling, stylish in a low-key German way -- but with CarPlay, I find that it has an odd lack of features. One of the big upsides of having CarPlay is that when you plug your iPhone into the USB port on the car, you can hit a button on the steering wheel and activate Siri. Or rather, you should be able to do that. Sadly, for my VW, the only button on the steering wheel gives you any kind of feedback works only with the car's built-in software, not with CarPlay. And it only works over Bluetooth. And when you plug in your phone to access CarPlay, the Bluetooth connection is disrupted.

Can you see where I'm going here?

Possibly the most annoying issue is when you activate voice commands and the car asks you whether you want to make a call or a perform a variety of other tasks. You speak a command, the system pauses and thinks...and then it tells you: "You need to pair your phone for Bluetooth." So you pair your phone for Bluetooth...and the second you plug it into the car to get CarPlay going, it disconnects the Bluetooth. I tried this with Android Auto, as well. Shocker: the same problem occurs with it.

CarPlay itself is a gem

Apart from that, the CarPlay system works very well. I have all of the features that I need for driving on the built-in screen, and the system is very responsive. To access Siri functionality on the screen, you hold the home button in the bottom left corner, and it provides you with the same information that you would get on your phone, but without the visuals. So if you want to get to get the latest scores for your favorite team or find out what the weather is going to be like, Siri will tell you. Since the VW's steering wheel controls don't work, this can be a tad cumbersome.

The overall look and feel of the CarPlay system is nearly identical to the icons you'd see an an iPhone, so the learning curve is nearly non-existent, which is a major positive for iPhone users.

The Phone app is simple, although fishing through the various menus and sub-menus should only be done when the car is stopped (unless you have a strong desire to get pulled over). If you tap on the CarPlay app on the phone, Siri will ask if you want to call someone. If you have any voicemails, Siri will tell you they're in your inbox, and can distinguish whether they've been listened to yet. Overall, the CarPlay app on the phone is robust enough to handle most phone calling needs, unless you are dislike using Siri.

CarPlay music Apple

Apple's Music app in CarPlay

CarPlay apps are a mixed bag

The Music and Podcast apps are great ways to avoid using Volkswagen's outdated built-in software. CarPlay takes the great look and feel of the Music app and shows it on the car's built-in screen. There are minor annoyances, though. I'm a huge fan of the shuffle feature, but no matter what song I start from in shuffle, the second song is nearly always the first song alphabetically in my library. (This happens to be Ed Sheeran's The A Team.) Although it's a good song, I only want to hear it now and then.

I have also come across a slightly different annoyance; if I ask CarPlay to shuffle an artist, it sometimes does so via Apple Music. With Verizon service in my area being significantly worse than both AT&T and T-Mobile, this is not an option I want to use while driving. That said, it is nice that everything I want to hear is available at a touch of button via CarPlay.

Using the Maps app has been something a loaded topic ever since Apple's map technology debacle. Admittedly, it is a lot better now than when Apple first switched from Google Maps, but it has a way to go to match its chief rival. Neither Google Maps nor Waze -- which says it has no plans for a CarPlay app -- is available for navigation, meaning Apple pretty much has the monopoly. That's not really a surprise, since we are talking about CarPlay here. Still, there are limits to the usefulness of Apple's walled-garden approach.

Carplay Maps Apple

Apple's Maps app in CarPlay

The result: I'm forced to get around Massachusetts' sub-par traffic conditions using Maps. Sure, it's getting smarter; it now knows when I am going to work and when I am on my way home. But it needs work.

I have found the Messages app in CarPlay is surprisingly easy to use. Rarely do I find that it has typos or doesn't understand what I am saying. Given that many states have laws banning texting while driving (as they should), this is important. I'd still like to see Apple introduce a privacy mode that can be set before beginning to drive in case you have a passenger with you that you don't want hearing all your messages read out loud.

Final thoughts

Overall, CarPlay is a clear win for Apple, even though that it is still in its early years. I am excited to see what's to come with this technology but I'm convinced that much of its future success will depend on more apps becoming available. CarPlay is a step in the right direction in helping car owners avoid paying automakers thousands of dollars for built-in GPS and telematics systems that will quickly become outdated. It's especially useful now that most people have decent cell phone service and can use a smartphone. The clear advantage here is that the device's software is upgradable.

As useful as CarPlay is this year, it should be even more useful in the future.

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