Apple Rules Automotive Infotainment -- For Now
With the iPhone 5's new Lightning connector, Apple again leads automotive infotainment around by the nose. That could change thanks to Bluetooth audio.
The technorati would likely agree that the Apple event last Wednesday didn’t have the pizzazz and product firepower of the Steve Jobs era, although the man and his early creations are certainly a hard act to follow. It’s also telling that one of the most talked-about topics after the event didn’t concern the eagerly awaited iPhone 5, but the new cable and connector for the device, called Lightning, and how it will affect millions of accessories -- including expensive ones such as your car.
Apple’s devices have been so dominant in automotive infotainment that the term “iPod integration” is used generically to describe media-player connections in cars. While the rise of the smartphone and its role in the connected car has somewhat eroded Apple’s automotive influence, the company still leads auto infotainment around by the nose.
The new Lightning connector, which replaces the company’s familiar 30-pin plug, is yet another example of Apple’s our-way-or-the-highway approach, and of automakers and their customers being at the mercy of the company’s whims on whether current automotive infotainment systems will work with the latest Apple products.
To try to get some answers, I reached out to two automakers on the cutting edge of smartphone integration -- BMW and Ford -- as well as several aftermarket adapter suppliers. None could confirm whether the iPhone 5 will work with existing infotainment systems.
Like the rest of us, automakers will have to wait until the end of this week, when the iPhone 5 is released, to find out about its compatibility with cars. “We’re not going to be able to give a solid answer until we test the actual device," a Ford representative said in an email. "We’ve been testing [the pre-production version of] iOS6 software, but until we get the device and test all versions -- AT&T, Verizon, Sprint -- we won’t have conclusive answers.”
A BMW spokesman gave a similar answer. “We won’t be able to truly engage in a full validation until the iPhone 5 is released," he said in an email. "We fully expect that customers will be able to access their music library and playlists in cars equipped with BMW Apps and MINI Connected using the car’s interface. We expect the same with all the BMW-approved apps.”
But he added that at least one BMW feature will go away with the iPhone 5. “The PlugIn feature that enables video playback while stationary and mirrors the Apple interface on the screen will not be available at launch because it uses an analog video signal. There is a lot we still don’t know, but BMW has a long history of finding compatibility solutions for iPods and smartphones where none existed.” Also, the new connector apparently won't support the spec known as iPod Out, which late-model BMW and MINI vehicles use to display an Apple device’s native media interface.
If your car doesn’t use a USB port to connect an iPhone but instead has a proprietary connector, you’ll need to buy Apple’s $29 Lightning-to-30-pin adapter cable -- if you can find one, since they’re already sold out. Otherwise, if you buy the iPhone 5 this week and plug it into your car’s USB port using the Lightning connector, no one knows which features you will or will not have.
Fortunately, there’s a silver lining in the form of Bluetooth audio, which allows for wireless music streaming. Apple was slow to get on board with the spec, finally including it on the iPhone 3GS and iPod Touch. While Bluetooth audio controls are limited on most cars, that’s starting to change, as some now offer more functions and information with the format.
Bluetooth audio may be the best reason yet to cut the cord with Apple devices in the car.
Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to Edmunds.com. In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.
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