Apple CarPlay lets iOS take over a Mercedes-Benz

/ Updated: March 5, 2014 8:48 AM PST

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GENEVA -- Apple's much anticipated CarPlay feature, formerly known as iOS in the Car, got its first public airing at the 2014 Geneva auto show this week. Volvo and Ferrari were offering demonstrations, but I took advantage of Mercedes-Benz, which had CarPlay implemented in a C-class.

CarPlay is a means of mirroring an iPhone's apps and functions through a car's dashboard. Although the CarPlay screens look the same from car to car, the control paradigms can vary. For example, the Volvo concept car at the show with CarPlay used a touch screen, but the C-class had Mercedes-Benz's indirect COMAND controller. All of the CarPlay functions in this demonstration were accessed using Siri voice command and the COMAND dial set into the car's console.

The icons on the main screen showed the same design as those in iOS but were a little larger for easier viewing while on the road. There were also fewer of them. This initial implementation of CarPlay has navigation, audio, phone, messaging, and three third-party apps: Spotify, Stitcher, and iHeartRadio. CarPlay will also include Beats Music at launch.

Further app support is a big question for CarPlay. From what I gathered at the show, Apple will be the gatekeeper for which apps it will let into the CarPlay ecosystem, although I imagine the company will listen to any objections or requests from automakers. The apps supported are likely to be a tiny subset of those available in the iTunes app store, as Apple and automakers are going to be very sensitive to driver distraction issues.

For this demonstration, an iPhone was cabled to the car's USB port -- CarPlay does not work through a wireless connection. An Apple staffer took me through the various functions, which all showed very similar flow as in iOS, making things instantly familiar for iOS users.

Apple CarPlay demo
No matter the car brand, the CarPlay interface will look basically the same. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Entering an address for navigation was as simple as asking Siri for a business or address. Adding a little novelty, the interface also included a list of recent addresses combined with any addresses that had been received on the iPhone's e-mail or text messages. The interface also let me enter addresses manually, but that proved tedious using the COMAND controller, because I had to choose each letter with the dial on the console.

The Apple Maps showing up on the screen were larger than those on the phone, making it easier to follow route guidance. The system uses the same routing algorithms as Apple Maps, and includes traffic information. The Apple staffer giving me the demo mentioned that the navigation employs aggressive caching so as to keep routing when the connection drops out. However, you can't initiate navigation if the car is outside of cell range.

If the car has its own GPS antenna, as the C-class did, CarPlay makes use of it to get better positioning. There is also a bit of dead reckoning programmed into Apple Maps, so a temporary loss of the GPS signal won't show the car driving through a forest or the ocean.

Making phone calls was as simple as saying a contact's name, although the interface also included an onscreen keypad. Text messaging was more interesting, the interface will not show any text messaging. For incoming or outgoing texts, Siri reads them out loud, preventing driver distraction. There is no way to compose a text other than through voice command.

Apple CarPlay demo
The music library uses the same paradigm as on an iPhone. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The music library looks very similar to the interface in iOS, and CarPlay defaults to iTunes Radio. Instead of showing a discrete image for album art on the Now Playing screen, the interface makes the cover image a subtle background.

We also looked at the iHeartRadio interface which showed the features I expect from the app. I could see my "favorited" stations and a list based on the car's current location. However, there wasn't a means of searching for new stations and adding them to my Favorites list.

Most impressively, CarPlay worked seamlessly during the demonstration. There were lag times waiting for external data to load, but the main functions and interface were all extremely quick. In the C-class, there was also an icon on the screen that let me switch back to the car's native navigation, audio, and phone functions.

To use CarPlay, you'll need an iPhone5 or better, and you will have to wait until at least the end of the year. A Mercedes-Benz engineer told me that the company is trying to get it out in its C-class by the end of 2014, so that will likely be in a 2015 model. I also heard that the S-class uses a similar head unit as the C-class, so that model could also benefit from CarPlay. Volvo was demoing CarPlay in a concept car, but has said it will first roll out the feature in its XC90 SUV. Other companies, such as Honda, have announced CarPlay adoption but had nothing on display at Geneva.

A Mercedes-Benz spokesperson also clarified to me that the company would also likely support any Android mirroring implementation that comes out of the Open Automotive Alliance, pointing out that both iOS and Apple can coexist in its cars.

CNET's full coverage of the Geneva Auto Show

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