The real impact of CarPlay: It's the software, dummy

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There’s plenty of back and forth about whether Apple’s recently announced CarPlay, which will arrive in some vehicles later this year, will combat distracted driving or just make it worse. But there’s one implication of CarPlay that actually gives me some hope about the disappointing state of car electronics: Apple’s track record as a software developer.

Ever had the software in your car’s radio/navigation/media console updated? It’s not easy and it’s not fast. When I got my latest car a couple of years ago, the radio had a bug where the right channel of stereo sound was played over both speakers when streaming Bluetooth audio. Not only did it take six months for a fix to get released, but updating the software meant a trip to the dealer and a two-hour wait while, I can only assume, they uploaded the software bit by bit over a reel-to-reel tape.

Most people probably don’t ever think about the software in their car. And with good reason, too, since most automakers aren’t exactly consumed with a passion for developing software. Even in the cases where car companies do want to pimp the software features, the spotlight’s always going to be on the newest model—they don’t have too much interest in continuing to update the software on older models, especially when it comes to adding new features.

Sound familiar? Because to me it’s reminiscent of the state of the cell phone market prior to about, oh, 2007.

But software is where Apple lives. The company does have a vested interest in keeping its software updated, and it has a proven history of continuing to support older devices.

That’s why CarPlay appeals to me: because it suggests that even as your car gets older, you won’t be stuck with an outdated chunk of electronics taking up a huge swath of your car’s dashboard.

Even my two-year-old car is starting to show signs of obsolescence. For one thing, it came with a 30-pin dock connector for connecting my iPod or iPhone. For another, its touchscreen seems like something from last century. It has scrollbars. Scrollbars. We’ve all been interacting with touchscreens every day for the last five years—you’d think my car could have a system that doesn’t look like the automated ticket machine at the movie theater.

Look, if our car’s interfaces are going to be primarily driven by touchscreens—and, let’s face it, these days it’s a cheaper and easier route for most automakers—then I’d rather that interface be in the hands of Apple, a company that has shown it actually thinks about how people interact with a touchscreen, than a manufacturer who’s more concerned with how to fit in another cup-holder.

Now, don’t get me wrong: There are plenty of downsides to the touch interface, especially in a car. But there’s an upside, too: those touchscreens are entirely dependent on software. And software can be refined, iterated, and updated.

Since CarPlay is powered by your iPhone, the software is as up-to-date as your phone’s, meaning that over-the-air patches can be deployed to fix bugs and bring new functionality without a trip to the dealer. (Tesla is, to my knowledge, the only car manufacturer who currently has the capability for over-the-air updates.) The touchscreen interface you have today or tomorrow doesn’t necessarily have to be the same one you have three or four years from now.

In a day and age where we’re all downloading app updates every day, and have become accustomed to quickly deployed fixes for security vulnerabilities, the process of updating the software in our cars—when such a thing is even possible—seems archaic. While CarPlay may not spring forth fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head, and fix all the woes of car electronics right out of the box, it’s laying the groundwork for improvements to come.

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