As anyone who’s ever used Apple CarPlay or Google’s Android Auto knows, there are limits to the sort of things phone projection software can control in your car. Media and volume are the extent for the vast majority of vehicles. For everything else, like climate control, audio adjustments and instrument cluster info, you have to fall back on the underlying infotainment system or physical knobs and switches, if your car still has them. Apple doesn’t like this, because of course it doesn’t. According to Bloomberg, it’s seeking to change that.
The report says that Apple is working on a new initiative called IronHeart that would deepen CarPlay’s hooks in vehicles’ various systems, so occupants would be able to adjust more settings and see more data without leaving CarPlay:
The work underscores the idea that cars could be a major moneymaker for the tech giant — even without selling a vehicle itself. While plans for an Apple car have faced setbacks, including the defection of key executives this year, the company has continued to make inroads with CarPlay. It lets customers link up their iPhones with a vehicle to handle so-called infotainment features. Seven years after its launch, CarPlay is now offered by most major automakers.
IronHeart would take CarPlay a step further. The iPhone-based system could access a range of controls, sensors and settings, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the project is secret.
The types of things IronHeart would ideally be able to influence consist of “inside and outside temperature and humidity readings; temperature zones, fans and the defroster systems; settings for adjusting surround-sound speakers, equalizers, tweeters, subwoofers and the fade and balance; seats and armrests; and the speedometer, tachometer and fuel instrument clusters,” Bloomberg says. Naturally, none of the code responsible for governing these things travels between a car’s USB port and whatever’s connected to it, so Apple is going to need automakers to work with it on this one.
And why in the world would they do that?
The advent of phone projection software in cars was troubling enough for manufacturers. I’m reminded of an insightful story from 2017 by The Verge, which detailed the apprehensiveness carmakers initially felt about allowing Apple and Google to dominate their vehicles’ touchscreens — screens that could otherwise be used to capitalize on branding opportunities.
At the time, a bunch of big industry players, including Toyota and Ford, joined forces to create a consortium called SmartDeviceLink. This was an effort to spurn Big Tech and create a separate app ecosystem and platform that would keep carmakers’ money-making potential priority number one as infotainment systems became more sophisticated. From The Verge:
But the ability to keep apps and services inside a branded environment is hardly the only reason half a dozen automakers have joined the consortium. Depending on who you ask, the other reason may be even bigger: control over apps and data.
“The lifetime value of a customer with [a carmaker] is typically around half a million dollars,” says Roger Lanctot, an analyst with Strategy Analytics who focuses on infotainment systems. That value comes from the sale of services and new vehicles, he says. “Lose control [of the data], and they’re losing out on some piece of that $500,000.”
SmartDeviceLink essentially evaporated, and thankfully automakers have wised up since and stopped resisting CarPlay and Android Auto, recognizing they’re features their customers want and base purchases on. They’ve also realized that the only way they could convince customers to choose their interfaces over a phone’s is by developing better alternatives. Which brings us to Android Automotive.
Almost two years ago, a few manufacturers including Volvo and Stellantis began announcing partnerships with Google to integrate the tech giant’s software into its respective infotainment systems. This was a surprising display of good business sense from both sides; rather than warring over who gets top billing, they could join forces. Automakers would reap Google’s ability to design better interfaces than they knew how to, and Google would gain yet another avenue through which to offer its extensive services, like Google Assistant, directly in vehicles.
The key to this arrangement working out, though, was that Google was willing to cede the overall look and feel of that experience to automakers to a certain degree, employing car companies’ fonts and distinct graphical styles to create branded platforms. It seemed a win for everyone involved, and the fact a growing number of manufacturers have announced partnerships with Google since indicates that the cooperation’s been a fruitful one.
Android Automotive wouldn’t have taken off if Google didn’t compromise. And Apple — the company that has repeatedly failed to woo the world’s biggest corporations to build its car — hasn’t historically displayed an inclination to compromise, to put it mildly. No carmaker wants to be relegated to the big dumb vessel through which Apple software is fed.
Right now, you still have to leave CarPlay to, for example, tweak A/C temperature. Existing infotainment systems aren’t completely obscured by CarPlay, but they sort of would be if IronHeart develops in exactly the way Apple wants it to. Therefore, Apple will have to cede something if it expects the auto industry to play along.
It will be messy. Different carmakers could permit different aspects of the IronHeart package, as Bloomberg predicts:
Still, carmakers risk irking iPhone fans by focusing on their own incompatible systems. And that may ultimately sway more of them to embrace Apple’s technology. They also may choose to implement the features in different ways depending on the car. In some vehicles, Apple could gain control over climate controls, while others may only offer access to speakers.
For Apple, the project could provide insights helpful to its efforts to build a self-driving car. However, the company wouldn’t collect a user’s or car’s data as part of the initiative.
That brings us to the other big reason your phone can’t see or affect the types of vehicle functions Apple wishes it could: Security. Car companies like to keep all that stuff walled off within vehicles, where it can’t be influenced by an outside device. Especially if that outside device has a wealth of third-party apps that could potentially exploit that link for nefarious purposes.
On one hand, if any company has the weight to throw around to pull something like this off, it’s Apple. On the other hand, Apple’s overreach is exactly what the auto sector is afraid of. Infotainment systems were so awful for so many years; today, they’ve finally achieved a quality of design and ease-of-use comparable with the best consumer electronics. That required a wealth of investment across the industry. I don’t see the world’s biggest automakers throwing that all away for nothing.