Carplay for the Rest of Us: Pioneer Demos Apple's Interface in its NEX Infotainment Systems

You won't have to buy a new car to get Apple's CarPlay interface for your iPhone.

I just saw Apple CarPlay in its near-final form. A black minivan pulled up to my office, and black-clad representatives from Pioneer Electronics showed me the highly anticipated, supposedly seamless marriage of iPhone to car, as it will look in the company's NEX infotainment systems.

It looks really easy: Plug in your phone, and CarPlay starts automatically, changing the display to the CarPlay interface. You can use your iPhone's contacts, music, and some other data through your car's display. (CarPlay works only with the iPhone 5 or higher running iOS 7.1 or later; you'll need a Lightning connector cable, too.)A

We saw much the same thing in a prototype demo of CarPlay in a Mercedes-Benz car a few weeks ago, but not everyone's going to run out and get a new car just to get CarPlay compatibility. For most of us, an aftermarket system like Pioneer's NEX will be the far less expensive option. (Alpine has also announced an aftermarket CarPlay option.)

The Pioneer demo also highlighted a few different things. The AVH-8000NEX system in our demo car has a capacitive touchscreen--still a rarity in aftermarket systems--so navigating the CarPlay icons for phone, map, music, and messaging functions was fast and responsive. The display showed a home button just like the one on your iPhone, to get back to the main screen. (The Mercedes-Benz car we saw before does not have a touchscreen, so naturally it didn't have a home button.)

We also saw more of Siri's integration with CarPlay. Ted Cardenas, vice president of marketing for Pioneer Car Electronics, showed on a demo iPhone how Siri could read or send a text message to a contact, or place a phone call. You could use just Siri to control CarPlay and never have to touch a screen at all, which could cut down significantly on driver distraction.

CarPlay isn't a final product yet. Both in the prototype I saw at Mercedes-Benz a few weeks ago and in the Pioneer demo this week, ambient noise distracted Siri. Pioneer's Cardenas said that as the CarPlay technology continues to undergo tweaks, Siri will acclimate to your car's sounds--the whoosh of the air conditioner, the hum of the engine (the sound of your kids bickering in back?)--and learn to distinguish your voice from everything else.

The NEX infotainment systems have been out since the spring, and they're the only Pioneer Electronics systems that will have CarPlay compatibility. (Sorry, Cardenas says, but only the NEX systems have the processing power to handle CarPlay.) The upgrade will be available as a download from Pioneer's website, which you can transfer to your NEX system using a USB key drive. When? Pioneer's official line is early summer, but Cardenas called it a matter of "a few weeks" before the upgrade would be available.

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