APPLE’S widely anticipated CarPlay software is making its mainstream debut this summer in models from Hyundai and Chevrolet, but Apple is already looking ahead to leverage its potential in a way that could turn the automotive industry’s current approach to connected cars on its head.
Aimed at streamlining the welter of apps from smartphones that play on some dashboards into a more cohesive — and less distracting — arrangement, CarPlay combines iPhone-based programs, including maps, messages and music, into a single interface. It makes adroit use of Siri voice commands and familiar touch controls.
But it cannot control standard car functions, like switching FM radio stations or checking a vehicle’s engine status. To use those features, drivers will have to switch out of CarPlay.
“Any user interface jump within a single display is a hard thing for people to reconcile,” said Parrish Hanna, Ford’s global director of human machine interface. Switching between different sets of controls, even between digital and physical control buttons, can be confusing and potentially distracting, he said.
So at its developers’ conference last month, Apple proposed that rather than following the traditional route of simply having technology companies create apps for cars, automakers should do a U-turn and write apps for the technology company’s software.
Ford, for example, could write an app for gauging fuel efficiency to run under CarPlay, giving iPhone owners a more seamless experience. But it would also raise issues about safety and privacy, and essentially turn automakers into Apple developers. (Google has a similar option in its competing Android Auto software.)
So will automakers start creating software for Apple’s program?
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“If we were to do it,” says Phil Abram, the chief infotainment officer at General Motors, “it would have to make sense for the car.” Using voice commands to roll down a window, for example, would seem gratuitous to many drivers. G.M. is introducing CarPlay in more than a dozen models this year, including the Corvette and the Cruze. Support for Google’s Android Auto will follow.
With its OnStar system, G.M. already has apps for smartphones to perform tasks like remotely starting or unlocking vehicles. Furthermore, G.M. will allow Apple’s CarPlay maps to use onboard GPS data directly from the car, Mr. Abram said. But with the G.M. ignition switch recall looming in the background, the automaker is taking pains to emphasize safety, and is not going to take the risk of allowing another company — Apple or Google — access to critical components like the electronic stability control and braking systems.
Addressing the privacy issue, Apple will not collect or use tracking information from the proposed auto company apps. “The data goes directly to us as the creator of the application,” Mr. Hanna of Ford said.
Still, if automakers were to begin developing apps for CarPlay, it could open a new avenue for hackers, experts say. And there are already potential vulnerabilities, as the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has demonstrated in experiments showing how a criminal could remotely take control of a connected car.
“There are absolutely security issues,” said Robert Clyde, international vice president at Isaca, a nonprofit organization focused on information technology security. “Could a bug in iOS or in Android give someone access to critical systems?” Apple and Google declined to comment.
Once a problem is discovered, there is also the practical problem of updating the software, which in many cases would require extensive testing to ensure that no new conflicts were introduced. In most cases, drivers would then have to return to the dealership for a software update.
Most automakers have already invested considerable time and effort in developing their own connected car systems. Ford has had such a system for more than seven years and is introducing its latest version, Sync 3, this summer. Sync 3 already supports a multitude of smartphone apps, taking the more traditional approach of having companies like Pandora develop apps for its system, rather than the other way around. To make the process easier for developers, Ford is promoting SmartDeviceLink, which would give app creators a way to write a program once that could then run in any compatible car. Toyota has said it is studying SmartDeviceLink as well.
There is also technology’s rapidly evolving nature to consider, Mr. Hanna said. “The apps are going to come and go,” he said, pointing out that Ford’s Applink software now supports Apple and Android — but not BlackBerry.
The lesson: Automakers cannot afford to hitch their connected car future to any one device.
Moreover, many drivers will not want to be forced to rely on a smartphone in their vehicles, so car companies will have to continue to develop built-in connected systems — especially with self-driving cars on the horizon, some experts said.
“It will be impossible to do everything from a phone,” said Andrew Poliak, the global director of automotive business development at QNX Software Systems. QNX is responsible for the software behind many connected car systems, including Audi’s and Ford’s. (QNX is owned by BlackBerry.) Cars will still need built-in navigation for semiautonomous driving assistance features to work, Mr. Poliak says, as well as to meet safety and security standards.
And even if automakers started developing significant software for CarPlay, “you’d need to change the whole supply chain and how things are done now,” said Mark Haidar, the co-founder and chief executive of Vinli, which has been working on a device to add connected car features to older cars. “And the return is that it will only benefit people using Apple products.”
Which is why Mr. Haidar remains skeptical. “I don’t think it’s going to fly in the auto industry,” he said.