Apple invades center stack, but carmakers say it will have a limited role

Apple invades cars' center stack

Apple's CarPlay, above, gives drivers access to the company's apps through the vehicle touch screen. CarPlay is featured in the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C class, left.
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Apple's new CarPlay system lets drivers use their vehicle touch screens to access the company's apps for music, phone numbers, route guidance, e-mails -- you name it.

So is Apple, which unveiled CarPlay this month at the Geneva auto show, poised to take over the center stack? Will the tech giant connect directly with motorists and muscle aside automakers for control of vehicle infotainment?

Well, no, say automakers and suppliers involved with CarPlay, which lets drivers control their iPhones from the vehicle touch screen.

They say Apple simply wants to make autos friendly territory for the iPhone. And automakers are unlikely to cede control to Apple because they need to attract owners of rival smartphones, such as Android.

Volvo's redesigned XC90, which was unveiled in Geneva with CarPlay in its infotainment system, also will accommodate Android, says Thomas Mueller, Volvo's vice president of electrical and electronic systems engineering.

"We have to serve all of our customers," Mueller said. "Of course there are some customers that are not using Apple products, so you would like to make all of your customers happy."

Volvo also will make its infotainment system compatible with MirrorLink, an industry standard for in-car smartphones.

In addition, the XC90 will offer apps that are unavailable on CarPlay, such as Pandora, the most popular streaming radio service, Mueller said.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

CarPlay's rollout in Geneva generated considerable attention. Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari also introduced vehicles with the system. And others are on the way.

CarPlay is just one part of a center stack's software. Typically, motorists reach the display via a few menu clicks or by pressing a console button.

Automakers and brands that plan to adopt CarPlay include BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia, Mitsubishi, Nissan, PSA Peugeot Citroen, Subaru, Suzuki and Toyota.

CarPlay

IHS Automotive estimates that CarPlay will be installed in 25 million vehicles worldwide by 2020. But IHS analyst Mark Boyadjis lists several reasons why Apple will not rule the vehicle infotainment world:

• Apple has shown no inclination to produce head units, the "brains" of any vehicle infotainment system. 

• Automakers are developing apps that modify a vehicle's performance or that help the motorist to schedule maintenance visits. Apple is focusing on apps that are not vehicle-specific. 

• Automakers want a distinctive look and feel for their infotainment systems, rather than a generic Apple display. This means CarPlay typically will be one of several options on infotainment menus. 

• Android users outnumber iPhone owners, and automakers want to attract Android users too, along with users of other smartphones. 

In January, Google announced a consortium with Audi, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai and chipmaker Nvidia to integrate Android into the cockpit. That consortium, dubbed the Open Automotive Alliance, says it will start to introduce Android-compatible infotainment systems this year. 

"There won't be a single automaker than uses only CarPlay," Boyadjis said. "They don't want to alienate the large number of car buyers that use different devices" from iPhone. 

A successful rollout of CarPlay could affect center stack design. It was Apple, after all, that revolutionized tablets, MP3 players and smartphones with its intuitive user interface. 

But Apple has not yet shown any inclination to produce a head unit. Instead, automakers are relying on electronics suppliers such as Panasonic, Harman, Visteon and Bosch to develop the hardware that will integrate CarPlay into their infotainment systems.

The 2015 Mercedes-Benz C class, which debuted this month in Geneva, features CarPlay as part of a Harman-designed infotainment system.

The 2015 Mercedes-Benz C class, which debuted this month in Geneva, features CarPlay as part of a Harman-designed infotainment system.

The Harman system gives the driver and as many as four passengers individual access to the infotainment system, so that each can use a different app simultaneously. The car also features a split console screen that can display different images for the driver and passenger.

Like most other vehicle infotainment systems, Harman's must provide navigation and other features even if the driver doesn't have his smartphone. This requires computing power to be embedded in the vehicle -- not the cloud.

And because Apple doesn't make head units, "we don't really consider Apple to be a competitor, but a partner," said Kelei Shen, Harman's senior vice president of global engineering. "We have a history of working with them, going back to the very first integration of the iPod."

Although automakers are unlikely to turn over infotainment design and control to Apple for a variety of reasons, Boyadjis of IHS believes the biggest barrier is culture.

Apple maintains tight control over its smartphone's iOS operating system, he says, and it doesn't seem plausible that Apple would design an operating system to accommodate rivals such as Android.

It's equally unlikely that an automaker would want to write off all potential car buyers that don't own iPhones, he says.

"There would have to be a culture shift by Apple or by the automaker," Boyadjis says. And that, he added, is unlikely to happen.

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com.


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