Roadshow

Why did my iPhone stop working with my BMW?

Short answer: BMW is from Venus, Apple is from Mars.

BMW

We received an email from Professor Keith B. in Sacramento, California, that echoes a common theme:

I have a 2008 BMW 528i. Initially I could scroll through my contacts, identify a number to call, and call it without trouble. Then my contacts would appear but not consistently. Yesterday I couldn't get the phone to work at all, even after turning off Bluetooth to reintroduce the auto software to my phone. 

The dealer told me it was Apple's iOS upgrades that were causing the problem and that BMW software engineers were working with Apple to resolve the compatibility issue. 

Any ideas as to a solution? 

I've grappled with issues like this a number of times across various cars we are sent for review that we test with the latest smartphones. It's frustrating when two major, sophisticated tech companies can't get or keep their tech working together.

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The big picture is that carmakers and phonemakers move in different circles and at different RPMs, with mobile updates coming much more frequently than dashboard updates. And regardless of frequency, incompatibility can arise when the two parties just don't keep their code in sync, often when the mobile platform does a unilateral update that breaks the connection.

There is also a "frenemies" factor at work here: Carmakers like mobile device companies but don't love them. BMW wants you to use its own ConnectedDrive software but knows it has to accommodate CarPlay, inviting Apple into the valuable in-car data stream, which blunts the appetite for a proud and profitable BMW tech offering. Which one do you think they keep up at all costs? I can hardly recall a time when a carmaker allowed its own head unit software to break, with one notable Lexus exception a few years ago

The workarounds I have for a problem like Keith is having are fair to middling: 

  • Upgrade the factory head unit to an aftermarket model that has CarPlay. This is hard in a BMW, easier in some other cars, depending on the dashboard design. And even name-brand aftermarket head units can have their own bugs, and with a far less robust party to gripe to than your BMW dealer.
  • Skip the car screen altogether and use the iPhone eyes-free via Bluetooth audio and Siri voice command. That means skipping over contacts transferred to the car screen and instead rely on a Siri dialogue to find a contact, dial it and hang up each time. This will drive you nuts on days when Siri decides to be a little dingy, like on any day that ends in a "y."
  • Android users can turn their phones into a car interface that replaces the dashboard screen by using the Android Auto app. No similar option exists for iPhone users, who will find the iOS Car Mode is really just a Do Not Disturb scheme.
  • Jailbreak your iPhone and try CarPlay iOS, which creates a car mode screen like Android Auto, but is only supported on an iPhone 7 or older running iOS 10 or earlier.
  • Try one of these odd, little aftermarket mirroring adapters that litter Amazon and Alibaba. They use Wi-Fi to cast your phone's screen to your car's screen but it's a literal screen projection so I have many concerns about scaling, resolution and distraction.
  • Check whether you have MirrorLink support in both your phone and car. Since this automotive screen-projection tech is a dark horse, many people who have it don't know it. I've batted about .500 getting it to work, even when I have a compatible phone and car, but you might be luckier.