Apple’s New Full-Dash CarPlay Brings Up A Really Difficult Interface Design Question

Apple Carplay Top

As I suspect many of you are already aware, yesterday Apple announced a new version of its popular CarPlay feature as part of its new iOS 16 mobile device operating system. This is something our society is interested in, just in case you forgot. This new version of CarPlay has one really dramatic difference: Where all previous versions were restricted to a car’s center stack infotainment display, the new version of CarPlay is free-range. It can expand and fill seemingly any and all digital displays on a car’s dashboard, including the traditional center display, but also instrument cluster displays and any other displays that may be built-in, regardless of size or shape. This means that you can have an Apple-designed user interface (UI) for your gauges, HVAC controls, radio — everything. This also means that other non-traditional dashboard elements, called “widgets” by Apple, can exist in these displays. Is this good or bad? That’s actually a more complicated question than it seems, I think.

First, let’s take a look at just what Apple has introduced for us here:

…and here’s Apple’s description:

Next generation of CarPlay

The next generation of CarPlay covers all of a driver’s screens for a cohesive experience. Deep communication with the vehicle’s systems allows for driving information on instrument cluster displays and control of the radio and HVAC. This new version of CarPlay is specific to each vehicle, accommodating unique screen shapes and layouts. New levels of personalization allow drivers to choose their gauge cluster design, including brand‑specific options.18

Fueling and driving task apps

Fueling and driving task apps are available in CarPlay. Your favorite apps that help you fill your tank and provide you with road information, toll support, towing help, and more can find a home in CarPlay.

 

Before we get into my asking the Big Question, let’s look at the design of the gauge clusters themselves. These are especially interesting because they’re the clearest reminder that what Apple is making here is not just another center-stack infotainment system, but rather an entire operating system/user experience for your car, replacing whatever the original carmaker came up with.

I actually think these instrument clusters are generally pretty good, no matter how much grousing comes from people online and even right here in The Autopian’s vast, filthy breakroom-furnace room. Here are some examples Apple showed:

Appledashoptions

Now, I’m not saying there are no problems here; the circular gauges without hashmark divisions don’t make a whole lot of sense, and the fake-analog-gauge, almost-skeuomorphic ones have foolishly tiny text on them. Also, I really don’t get the prominent inclusion of the compass on many of these, especially since all of these cars certainly have actual GPS, map-based nav. Is there anyone who is really craving knowing how many degrees NW they’re facing?

In fact, the general tone and look of these reminds me a lot of some gauge cluster ideas I made back in 2016:

Apple Jtgauges

To be sure, I had some hashmark-less gauges myself, there. And, it’s not like OEMs have been generally doing anything that great with their instrument gauge digital design, anyway:

Apple Oemclusters

Presented with the terrifying freedom of the blank slate of a full-color LCD display for instruments, most carmakers have either tried to replicate physical gauges, or have seemingly just been baffled about what best to do, creating a mess like that Prius cluster there (bottom one) or making elegant, but largely useless clusters like the Tesla Model S one on the right, which uses a tiny amount of the screen real estate to show you useful stuff (speed, battery range, outdoor temp) and lots more space is used to show a portrait of the car and a techy-looking graph that really doesn’t help you drive any better.

Some carmakers have been doing a good job on their dash displays, like Ford:

But, is even that so different than the CarPlay gauges? Not really. No, the bigger news here has to do with this:

Apple Bigcarplay

Apple showed how CarPlay can take over pretty much any size and shape display in a car, and many new cars are coming out with long, full-dash display setups , like the Mercedes-Benz EQS, for example. In this case, all of that vast screen real estate can be populated with widgets from iOS, little panels that could potentially display, well, pretty much anything.

This is where the Big Question comes in.

Before I became an automotive journalist, celebrated and/or reviled depending on what sort of taillight bar I’m in, I was a user interface/user experience designer, working on interfaces for desktop and mobile and all sorts of applications. I can tell you that the sort of design shown in these widgets is pretty much the same as you’d find for most mobile devices, usually the sort that don’t have a motor or wheels and weigh about 3,998 pounds less than a car. [Editor’s Note: Glad you stated your qualifications for that truly shocking insight. -DT]

These widgets are designed to be legible and able to capture your attention when needed. None of the widgets shown here are actually necessary to drive a car, and, in many cases, have the potential to take away the driver’s attention enough to become something of a hazard.

Apple Dontneed

A lot of these widgets may be for things we’d expect to deal with in a car, anyway: music or podcast apps, perhaps HVAC controls (though, in the shot Apple provided the temperature controls are restricted to the edges of the bottom bar of the center screen) but several of the ones seen in this example shot are decidedly non-important to driving, and would require real focus to read/pay attention to, like the calendar widget there or the air quality widget or those two analog clocks or the weather in the center display.

Based on what Apple demonstrated, it would be technically trivial to add a texting widget or a video-chat widget or Facebook widget or, hypothetically, any app could be in there, a web browser or a dating app or Wordle or whatever.

Even if there are restrictions and safeguards to prevent non-driving apps from showing up in the instrument cluster area (those clocks and compasses shown are iffy), there are still plenty of dash real estate that can be used for these possible widgets, as Apple showed.

The thing is, all of these non-driving-focused apps or features could be – and absolutely are, on a daily basis – accessed on a driver’s phone. Drivers routinely read texts or check websites or try to hook up with people or choose podcasts or whatever on their phones as they drive, and the act of that requires much more attention taken from that big window in the front of the car and the task of driving than glancing at a dash display does.

So, The Big Question here is this: Is it actually worse to have non-driving-task-related displays on the dashboard, formatted and designed for dash display, than it is to have people actually looking down at their phones while driving?

I know the ideal is that you shouldn’t be looking at your damn phone at all while you’re driving, but we all know people do it. So should our cars vainly try to cling to an ideal circumstance that doesn’t actually exist, or should a car’s UX accept the failings of human nature and do what it can to try to mitigate the consequences?

I’m not a fan of putting non-driving-related displays on the instrument cluster, or, really, driver-facing dash at all. The passenger can have a separate one with whatever they’d like, why not? But, at the same time, I think I’d rather have a driver be able to glance at a display of an incoming text on the dashboard, which is placed at an optimal location for the line of sight and allows the hands to stay on the wheel, than for that same driver to hear their phone buzz and fish it out of their pocket to look.

So, I admit, I’m a little conflicted. As much as I’d like to be a hard-ass and say this is all terrible, and these sorts of frivolous widgets have no place on a dashboard, I’m also a human being, with faults and flaws ingrained and mixed in me like peanuts and marshmallows in Rocky Road ice cream, so I know that we make bad decisions every day, all the time.

As you probably expected, this idea got me a lot of blowback already, even before we published this. David fundamentally doesn’t seem to get my point, and Thomas thinks that adding any extra distractions is a bad idea.

I don’t think either of them are wrong.

However, I also wonder if maybe accepting people’s bad habits and taking some control of them could make sense. What if you could add almost any dash-app widget you want, but doing so locks out the app on your phone, and the widget could at least be designed to limit the amount of attention/interaction demanded? Is that a reasonable solution that takes into account the worst of our natures?

This way, people who may be willing to do stupid things by interacting with a particular app could at least be mollified by getting whatever essential bit of interaction they need, but framed and designed in a way that is the most minimally invasive or distracting.

Or, maybe that would just open up the possibility of incredibly distracting dashboard displays? But, maybe that’s still better if it gets people off their phones, which takes even more focus away from driving than glancing at the dashboard would?

I genuinely don’t know if what I’m suggesting is right, but I think it’s a question worth asking, especially now since this new CarPlay has essentially made all of these possibilities far more accessible, even if we’re not seeing all the possibilities demoed right out of the gate. The other, safer option would be to just lock out all phone use while driving, but I feel like that would be a non-starter for many, many people. What I’m wondering is if perhaps there’s a way to meet people and their bad habits half-way, which may be better than pretending people won’t do stupid things behind the wheel.

None of these solutions are perfect, but, then again, neither are we, which is why we’re here. I’m really curious to hear what you think about this!

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71 Responses

  1. I’m just glad they’re going to be integrating FM radio, HVAC, etc and allow CarPlay to interact with them. That’s the biggest issue currently is to use Sirius or FM radio, you have to exit CarPlay, make your adjustment, then go back into CarPlay. Huge pain when there should just be an API that Apple can use to control those things.

  2. Without wishing to start a google/apple platform debate, I do think there is something to the idea of letting one or both of the massive companies with native software experience handle software rather than each OEM reinvent their own wheel.

    I do think there is also something to designing for harm minimization rather than refusing to acknowledge common undesired behavior. It doesn’t mean accepting that text-while-drivers are fine and we should have native tiktok on the cluster though

  3. Put anything you like on your dashboard displays as long as what’s there and how much fiddling with it you’ve been doing is available to the accident investigators. Discouraging drinking and driving is similarly difficult, but put some prosecutable evidence in there at least.

  4. Are people going to do stupid things? Yes.
    Should we make that easier? No.
    Are companies going to push advertising into this? Of course.
    Are “bad actors” going to hack these systems to mess with/steal from/kill people? Yes.
    Are we comfortable with all of this?

    I am not.

  5. Rules
    ——–
    #1 Non Car apps/Screens! should only be available when the car is in Park.
    #2 Limit the amount of light emitted from screens at night

    Suggestions
    —————
    All new cars should have a HUD standard with a very limited list of things that can be displayed:
    Possible examples : Speed (digital numerals), Compass (N, NE, E, SE and so on only), Outside temperature, Simple display of directions (Simple arrow showing left turn, straight etc, and a numeral display of distance), maybe song title/artist of what is being played.

    However, everything displayed has to be as simple as possible. No fancy colors and animations. Just easy to read information that assists with driving

    The Cluster
    —————
    Gauges – the big 2m and smaller 6 or whatever is the current (past) normal gauges
    Light emitted is included in the maximum light that is allowed to be admitted at night.
    No fancy animations, just a colored display of car information.

    Car in park and not moving, show porn or kids movies for all I care. Have animated fireworks Be as distracting as you want and can.

  6. Rules
    ——–
    #1 Non Car apps/Screens! should only be available when the car is in Park.
    #2 Limit the amount of light emitted from screens at night

    Suggestions
    —————
    All new cars should have a HUD standard with a very limited list of things that can be displayed:
    Possible examples : Speed (digital numerals), Compass (N, NE, E, SE and so on only), Outside temperature, Simple display of directions (Simple arrow showing left turn, straight etc, and a numeral display of distance), maybe song title/artist of what is being played. Display size is to be limited to a small area and general location.

    However, everything displayed has to be as simple as possible. No fancy colors and animations. Just easy to read information that assists with driving

    The Cluster
    —————
    Gauges – the big 2m and smaller 6 or whatever is the current (past) normal gauges
    Light emitted is included in the maximum light that is allowed to be admitted at night.
    No fancy animations, just a colored display of car information.

    Car in park and not moving, show porn or kids movies for all I care. Have animated fireworks Be as distracting as you want and can.

  7. I’m not an old person. Heck I’m a millenial! But I DO NOT WANT A DIGITAL GAUGE CLUSTER! I like the MID display in between the gauges, but so far all my cars have had physical gauges for everything, including fuel and temperature. Both of our cars are new enough (2015 & 2016) and neither are base models, in fact my car is the range topper. What I really don’t want is my phone taking over the information I NEED to safely operate my ve-hicle. I like Apple CarPlay I really do, I like how it makes the infotainment stuff better. But thats it. I do not need it to show rubbish widgets that are distracting

    1. I am relatively old (57). The configurable gauge cluster in my RAM is vey convenient. I use a traditional layout with the speedometer in the middle for everyday, but when I am towing my travel trailer I switch to the gauge summary screen that shows all the vitals right in front of me. The speedo is smaller and at the top of the display in this summary mode, but easily readable. This flexibility based on use case is a great feature of digital gauge displays.

  8. Sorry, grumpy old car guy here…. Am I the only automotive enthusiast that is becoming increasingly disenfranchised with the gimmicky crap car manufacturers think we want?

    There are aspects I love about modern car innovation, namely things that reward driving enthusiasts such as more hp per liter, more direct power delivery via dct’s, better chassis design, drive mode selection, etc. and, yes AUGMENTING the experience with good features that genuinely improve your ability to enjoy driving.

    However, stuff like this seems like forcing features for the sake of innovation and “newness” without actually thinking if it will make things BETTER. So many features on moder cars are innovation gimmicks:

    FSD? Gimmick
    Lane keep assist and auto braking? Gimmick (and annoying)
    Most 3rd row seats in SUVs? Gimmick
    (Most SUVs for that matter): Gimmick

    More and more, the features being introduced are features intended for the non-car enthusiast, and instead focus on flashy, popular boxes to check, like specs on a cell phone. Plus, if I prefer android phones to apple phones, will I have to avoid Mercedes cars now?

    I wish a major auto manufacturer would be bold and introduce lines of cars with option packages for the driving enthusiasts – with minimal gimmicks (and without having this be a “track focused package” I have to pay more for), while having other packages for those looking for all the wiz-bang features.

    Just give me a car that has a direct feel, I enjoy driving, and doesn’t beep and freak out at me as a feature….

    And get off my lawn.

  9. My first reaction was: this sucks and screw apple and their fake bubbly useless bullshit

    And then I thought about the possibilities! Digi-dashes like a modern Starion Technica package… something that would be at home in Cyberpunk and Tron! Love it! And more importantly, I would pay for it.

  10. As much as I like my Tesla, I’d much rather have this than the almost good OS they have there. It’s the future, where you share cars (perhaps) and you don’t care too much about what happens in the belly of the beast (the car).

  11. This is a huge HELL NO, both to apple taking over the screens and having unified screens.

    Anything that requires human control should keep the safety, real time metics, convenience and infotainment in separate displays and controllers. We should not have an expectation that lag, errors or hardware issues could negatively impact display and interaction. I don’t want to think about the quantity of life saving information that may me hidden because the phone cpu is overworked or if an app catches an unknown error.

    This may be nice for onboard productivity and entertainment screens when we go full autonomous, but as long as humans require information to make decisions this is s very bad idea.

    1. My poor iPhone tends to overheat if CarPlay is connected on road trips, and the sun happens to be shining on wherever it’s plugged in. Makes me wonder if Apple is designing this to be completely reliant on the phone hardware, or they will be making some special module that car manufacturers can integrate with an ASIC, and supporting software that would get connected to the car’s electronic buses. My bet is on the latter. Can you imagine the headlines? “If your iPhone crashes, you crash too”. It has to be extra triple redundant to be anything remotely safe for general purpose use.

  12. I went from a car that had CarPlay to one that did not. I forgot how useful it was, and sprung $1000 to retrofit a 2014 Audi A7 with an aftermarket CarPlay interface. It doesn’t work or sound as well as my previous Jaguar E-Pace, and it lacks a touchscreen. More importantly, Siri’s awful accuracy is even worse. And yet, I’ll never buy another car without OEM CarPlay. For me, someone who does like to drive (no CarPlay in my ‘75 MGB!),, my car is also often my mobile office. If Apple can refine CarPlay to work better than the OEM infotainment systems of the BMWs, Jaguars and Audis I’ve owned (which have all sucked), then I’m all for it. Apple knows interface design, and they will get this right. A few physical buttons would be nice, though. I still miss my old BlackBerry’s keyboard. Even typing this comment on an iPad is taking forever.

  13. Last summer my wife and I embarked on a cross country road trip in a rented Ford Edge with barely 500 miles on the odometer. We made it all the way into Wyoming when the center console decided to completely crap out, leaving us with no way to control the A/C on a 98 degree day. We pulled over, stopping and starting the engine to no avail. We decided to soldier on, and it finally awoke from its slumber about fifteen miles from our destination. Big HELL NAH from me on touchscreens in cars in general.

  14. I think the People have already voted on this. They will use their phones while driving to get the info they want, period. The Apple stat in the video that 79% of U.S. new car buyers expect CarPlay in the car makes it pretty apparent. I think efforts such as this to make that behavior less distracting from the act of driving are a step in the right direction.

    Is the information potentially distracting? Yes.
    Are humans going to get that information somehow while driving? Yes.
    Do we have to force them to take their hands and eyes away from the act of driving to access it? No.

  15. What happens when the person with the phone that’s running the dash display
    runs into a convenience store to pay with their phone, leaving the passenger with the car on
    to watch “infotainment”? Does everything revert to the default display, then back again when they return?

    Is Apple going to convince people to buy a $800-$1200 iPhone for their car, like they have you buy
    an iPhone for each of their kids, or will you have to buy a faceless Car Play module every year
    that supports the latest features? (two year old iPad Pros just got that particular shaft with iPadOS.)

    Will there be a $2000 designer Hermes display that’s only available with a Hermes Car iPhone?
    (they already do that with the Apple Watch).

    Apple marketers live in a very peculiar bubble.

    1. ONE… a “phone” isnt a phone. Its a device. A Device has no moving parts… where as.. your “phone” has no moving parts.

      SO, now that weve established the DEVICE… the idea of paying with it.. is mind boggling as is the idea of the passenger.. who is completely engrossed in the bullshit display…

      Probably wouldnt notice that the door was left open — as people do… and in many places.. the car gets JACKED.. and ya wind up with a massive problem… cause no one paid enough attention at the REAL shit, instead of staring at a device.

  16. Well it’s simple really. Enabling people to do stupid shit will increase the probability (P) of stupid shit happening. But in a smart way it’ll decrease the severity of the consequences (C) of said stupid shit.

    If P*C_(new car play) > P*C_(old car play), then the new CarPlay is bad. If not, new CarPlay is good.

    The only difficulty here is finding the values for C and P. There no morality dilemma here.

  17. My biggest concern here is stability. I don’t really want to rely on a Bluetooth connection to an app on my phone for core functionality like my speedometer. That just seems like it’s inevitably going to be somewhat glitchy, and while I’ll put up with that for center-stack infotainment if it means a better interface than whatever the manufacturer came up with, I’m not OK with it when it comes to the core driving-related info that lives behind the steering wheel.

    Seriously, when was the last time you had a Bluetooth connection—or wireless connection of any kind, really—that was perfectly reliable and nuisance-free? How often do you have to force-quit an app or reboot your phone to resolve some glitchy situation? For me, the answers are “never” and “all the time,” respectively. Are you OK with that in your gauge cluster?

    As to the widget thing, I’m in the camp that says they should be seriously restricted. Opening up the car’s dash to the kind of distracting bullshit that, yes, people already look at all the time while driving, creates a moral hazard. It normalizes the behavior of using one’s phone as a distraction from the often-boring-but-vitally-important task of driving the car, and makes it more acceptable. That’s not OK, and I’d venture to say that in an ideal world there would be (effective, well-designed) regulations preventing that kind of shit. There’s also the risk compensation aspect; if you make doing non-driving-related tasks easier and less distracting, people will feel free to do them *more*, and you’ll lose some or all of the benefit that you were hoping for.

    It’s a bad idea all around. If automakers want an Apple-designed UI for their cars, they should just contract with Apple to design it for them and build it into the vehicle. It might well be better than what we have now, Apple is overall pretty good at UI. I don’t want my phone just taking over, though. This doesn’t seem like it’s going to go well.

    1. Even with a non Bluetooth cable connection there is a delay getting carplay to kick in, and often it will lose connection for a few seconds, especially in hot weather. I wouldn’t want to have to depend on it for actual driving needs.

  18. I’m conflicted too. First off, I’m of the opposite opinion on in-car navigation. I have yet to use one that’s anywhere close to Google/Apple maps (or Waze for that matter) in terms of usability. I’d rather just have a dumb screen for the display from my phone’s mapping app. Or, you know, a cell phone mount. As far as I’m concerned, on-vehicle GPS is extraneous complexity and cost.

    As for the current “screens everywhere” trend, I’m hopeful that some smart developer can use the new widgets to develop a good “night driving” mode — red or amber gauge/digits for speedo/tach/fuel and idiot “lights” only in the binnacle, low backlight brightness, all other screens off. That guy/gal/giraffe/whatever will be a hero for people who drive outside the urban zones, especially in deer country where good night vision counts and there aren’t streetlights. Backlit screens with bright backgrounds are TERRIBLE for night vision.

  19. These are all interesting questions, but they are ultimately irrelevant. Touch screen controls don’t belong in key areas where you’ll operate the controls while driving. Period. It is an objectively terrible and stupid idea.

    We can hem and haw over widgets all day but the bottom line is that without physical controls, the entire idea is garbage.

  20. SO… lets get this straight. Ive got storage for my device about 2′ away from me, along with my keys and anything else. Ive also got storage above my head.. storage in my doors, all for things to keep me safe… and what I need on any given moment.

    SO… Im going to trade in a damn fine yet 18yr old vehicle.. for a laptop on wheels.. who’s only function is to make others rich by selling my info.. offering to customize my “screen”….

    How bout ya customize my interior as I want!
    How bout ya change the interior colors as I want.
    How bout ya change the exterior colors as I want.
    How bout the damn vehicle.. do as I fucking want.. all the damn time.

    Showing me a massive screen.. with bullshit info on it… man, what a load of crap.
    Its not useful to me. If the damn battery dies.. or if the H.D crashes from too much shit.. then what?

    JUST another sign.. if YOU the driver being removed from driving the damn car.

  21. This would be great for my car (volvo) as simple things like temp are not displayed anywhere. I had a WK2 with an aftermarket head unit with obd2 connection and there was so much more information I could access and use!

  22. This has to be the aspect I despise the most about modern cars. The whole touchscreens everywhere approach. How is this any less distracting than using your phone while driving? Apart from music playback and GPS, none of this is remotely necessary (I mean, I’d argue that GPS and music aren’t necessary either but I get why it’s nice to have those. I’m not a caveman, y’all).

    I feel bad just for skipping songs on my windshield-mounted phone or adjusting route details on google maps while driving.

  23. My gut reaction – I don’t like it, and it is a bad idea. Too distracting, and even though my iPhone experience has been MUCH better than Android, what happens when your phone freezes or lags, and then your dash screens won’t respond for a while?

    On the other hand, if you could arrange the vehicle info and controls where you want them, that might be nice. But I see no reason at all to have various apps and widgets cluttering up the dash.

    In the end, this another reason I’m holding on to older cars, I much prefer the gauges and knobs, things you can adjust by feel while watching the road.

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