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 that the new product applications carry big implications for the tech giant's automotive ambitions. And for a driver's ability to be distracted by the increasing attention commanded by in-car screens.

Avi Greengart, a consumer tech analyst and president of Techsponential, told Newsweek that Apple may not have to build its own cars - a topic of longstanding rumor - if it can effectively take over the user experience cars from existing manufacturers.

"Automakers are faced with a sort of Faustian bargain here," he said. "On the one hand, Apple claims that 79 percent of people specifically want to buy a car that has CarPlay. And it is a key purchase driver. On the other hand, if Apple is the one that is controlling the way the consumer interacts with the car and the services that run the car, then that relegates the auto manufacturer to being a carriage builder."

Apple CarPlay
Close-up of icon reading Apple CarPlay on vehicle dashboard display screen. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

While the list of automakers working with Apple on this update haven't been confirmed, Greengart thinks that this will lead some of them to eschew working with Apple on this altogether. Tesla, BMW and General Motors were large omissions from the company's presentation. Tesla products do not currently 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 on the user experience.

"Many automakers continue to invest heavily into their embedded infotainment systems as they present opportunities for making them part of the larger brand experience," he told Newsweek. "So it's unlikely that automakers will be divesting themselves from their infotainment efforts anytime soon."

The main concern for writer and tech critic Paris Marx is the potential for even more distraction after the update as automakers continue trending towards touchscreens and away from physical buttons.

Apple Worldwide Developer Conference
Apple's Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi speaks 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 larger screens in these cars and controls for their various systems moving to touchscreens where there's no tactile feedback," Marx said in an interview with Newsweek. "We've seen manufacturers like Tesla trying to put features that seem designed for distraction into those screens."

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

The tech critic doesn't think Apple has been as irresponsible with their CarPlay technology, but it points to a worrying trend of putting aesthetics over safety. In part, Marx points out, that can be chalked up to automakers following Tesla's decision to make the central touchscreen the sole focal point within the cabin.

That opens up the driver to increased risk of distracted driving and other vulnerabilities, like software breakdowns.

"Now you're not just relying on these buttons, you're relying on these screens," Marx said. "There's a greater risk of having software issues in addition to hardware issues. I think it builds a lot of problems and vulnerabilities into the car itself that don't need to be there while also creating these issues of potentially distracted driving."

2023 Toyota Highlander
Wireless Apple CarPlay is a feature on the 2023 Toyota Highlander. Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

Marx pointed to the recent uptick in U.S. traffic fatalities, which were 10.5-percent higher in 2021 than the previous year and were at their highest in 16 years, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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

"With more screen real estate, the driver can, using this example, see both the navigation and radio displays at once without manually performing an operation to view one or the other," he said. "With clean and legible graphics and arrangement, more screen real estate can potentially reduce distraction and present all of the useful and relevant information that the driver may want to see while driving."

Greengart said that analog and digital redundancies will probably be built into future vehicles, where no matter how concentrated manufacturers become on touchscreens, physical controls for some of those same functions should always be present.

"You can't leave that at the feet of Apple because every car manufacturer is trying to figure out what information needs to be where," he said.

He added that we're likely to see a lot of differences in how the new Apple CarPlay is adopted by manufacturers, saying that Ford's version may end up looking different from Polestar's, for example. That may be a factor of consideration for car buyers, but he argues that 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 may get deeper with your next car purchase."