Is Apple CarPlay distracting? Experts can’t decide

Apple announced a major update to its Apple CarPlay smartphone integration software this week. The system allows drivers to access some functions of the company’s smartphones while driving.

Analysts and critics from different backgrounds think the new product applications have big implications for the tech giant’s automotive ambitions. And for the driver’s ability to be distracted by the increasing attention commanded by the car’s screens.

Avi Greengart, consumer technology analyst and president of Techsponential, said newsweek that Apple might not have to build its own cars – a long-running topic of rumor – if it can effectively take over the user experience of cars from existing manufacturers.

“Automakers face a kind of Faustian bargain here,” he said. “On the one hand, Apple says that 79% of people specifically want to buy a car that has CarPlay. And it’s a key purchase factor. On the other hand, if Apple is controlling the way the consumer interacts with the car and the services that drive the car, so that relegates the car manufacturer to being a coach builder.”

Apple Car Play
Close-up of icon reading Apple CarPlay on vehicle’s dashboard display screen.
Smith/Cattle/Getty Images Collection

While the list of automakers working with Apple on this update hasn’t been confirmed, Greengart thinks this will lead some of them to avoid working with Apple on this. Tesla, BMW and General Motors were major omissions from the company’s presentation. Tesla products currently do not support Apple CarPlay.

According to Ed Kim, chief analyst and president of AutoPacific, automakers are likely to follow the trajectory of Android Automotive OS when dealing with the new CarPlay, which gives them some oversight over the user experience.

“Many automakers continue to invest heavily in their integrated infotainment systems as they present opportunities to make them part of the broader brand experience,” he said. newsweek. “So it’s unlikely that automakers will ditch their infotainment efforts anytime soon.”

Writer and tech critic Paris Marx’s main concern is the potential for even more distraction after the update, as automakers continue to tend toward touchscreens and away from physical buttons.

Apple Worldwide Developers Conference
Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi talks about CarPlay on stage during Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference.
JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

“I think we’ve seen a growing trend of bigger screens on these cars and controls for their various systems switching to touchscreens where there’s no haptic feedback,” Marx said in an interview with newsweek. “We’ve seen manufacturers like Tesla trying to put features that seem designed for distraction into these screens.”

Marx was referring to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) investigation of Tesla for allowing drivers to play video games in their cars.

The tech critic doesn’t think Apple has been that irresponsible with its CarPlay technology, but points to a worrying tendency to put aesthetics over safety. In part, Marx points out, this can be attributed to automakers following Tesla’s decision to make the central touchscreen the only focal point inside the cabin.

This opens the driver up to a greater risk of distracted driving and other vulnerabilities such as software glitches.

“Now you’re not just trusting these buttons, you’re trusting these screens,” Marx said. “There’s a greater risk of having software issues as well as hardware issues. I think that creates a lot of issues and vulnerabilities in the car itself that don’t need to be there, while also creating these potentially distracting driving issues.”

Toyota Highlander 2023
Wireless Apple CarPlay is a feature of the 2023 Toyota Highlander.
Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

Marx pointed to the recent increase in US road traffic deaths, which were 10.5% higher in 2021 than the year before and reached the highest level in 16 years, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Kim offered a counterpoint, saying that the more screen space CarPlay takes up, the less time drivers will spend navigating between menus for different functions.

“With more screen space, the driver can, using this example, see the navigation and radio screens at the same time without manually performing an operation to view one or the other,” he said. “With clean, readable graphics and arrangements, more screen real estate can potentially reduce distraction and present all the useful and relevant information the driver might want to see while driving.”

Greengart said analog and digital redundancies are likely to be built into future vehicles, where no matter how focused manufacturers become on touchscreens, the physical controls for some of those same functions must always be present.

“You can’t leave it at Apple’s feet because every automaker is trying to figure out what information needs to be where,” he said.

He added that we will likely see a lot of differences in how the new Apple CarPlay is adopted by manufacturers, saying that the Ford version could end up looking different from the Polestar, for example. That might be a consideration for car buyers, but he argues it means the same thing.

“I think the most important thing to know is that if you’re investing in the Apple ecosystem, that investment can go deep into your next car purchase.”

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