Apple CarPlay: Has the iCar finally arrived?

In depth: T3 examines whether Apple's answer to in-car stacks up

There's a new front in the war between Google and Apple. At CES 2104, Google announced partnerships with various car companies. Now the brains from Cupertino have paraded their in-car firepower with the launch of CarPlay at the Geneva Motor Show.

The reason we're seeing things ramp up in the car wars is simple - the tech giants want control of your drivetime. But has Apple's system really made our cars smart? T3's Kieran Alger was in Geneva for a play with Apple CarPlay...

We've been waiting for Apple to show its car tech hand ever since it announced iOS in Cars back at WWDC last year. Back then it was a minor point amidst other bigger, more attention grabbing announcements.

Now it's big news. Why? That's because it finally signals the opening of a new battle front in the war between Google and Apple – the fight for our drivetime.

As we connect our cars, plugging them into the internet of things, there's a huge opportunity for the tech powers to deliver new services and apps specifically tailored for all that time we spend in our cars.

The automobile is the ultimate mobility device and they both want their platforms to be the brains behind this new world of connected cars.

Until now all the car manufacturers have spent time and money developing their own in-car platforms and systems – or at least adapting offering from the likes of QNX or Microsoft. The problem with this is that more often than not they can only work with a few of your smartphones main functions, like calls and music.

You're carrying around all that power in your mobile handset and very little of it can be unleashed to improve your driving experience. Apple CarPlay changes that, offering people like Volvo, Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz the chance to create a hybrid system. It features their own system but with an added gateway to an in-car iOS experience that's powered by your iPhone. Provided you own an iPhone 5, 5s or 5c.

From now on we'll be able to mirror iOS apps that have been optimised for the car on the built in media units simply by connecting your iPhone using a Lighting cable.

Each manufacturer will have a different take on how CarPlay is integrated. So, decisions like whether the phone should be docked or not are down to them. What happens within the CarPlay part of the display though is tightly controlled by Apple. It'll have to conform to Apple's standards.

Volvo, Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz were given the chance to go first but expect to see the likes of Ford and Audi launching their interpretations soon.

So what are they all like?

Apple CarPlay in the Volvo Estate Concept

The Volvo multimedia and infotainment system looks much like an iPad which is a great starting point.

Four tabs are displayed on the homescreen, three of which offer access to Volvo's own systems. The fourth – which appears automatically when you plug in your iPhone using a Lightning cable - is the gateway to Apple CarPlay.

Tapping this tab displays all of the available CarPlay optimised apps. There are six to start with focussing mainly on phone, navigation and music.

It's incredibly easy to use, nicely responsive and intuitive. In fact it's just like using your iPhone or iPad with all the usual gestures such as swiping, pinch and zoom.

The Volvo also has a button in the steering wheel that lets you launch Siri.

Apple CarPlay in the Mercedes-Benz C Class

The Mercedes offers by far the least impressive integration. For a start the multi media display floats above the dash like a bit of an afterthought.

At the same time, using the command knob to scoll through even a limited number of apps lacks the ease we've become accustomed to from Apple products and feels fairly analogue.

However, if Mercedes get their way, it looks like owners of older Mercedes models might be able to install CarPlay too which would be a nice touch.

Apple CarPlay in the Ferrari FF Coupe

Ferrari has opted for a kind of hybrid offer in knob and screen control of CarPlay in its FF Coupe integration.

Launching CarPlay is done by hitting a physical button on the car's infotainment system. Once you're in, you won't get that familiar swipe to move through the iPhone-like screen. Instead you have to hit arrows on the screen to scroll through your apps and option.

So should Google be worried the Apple CarPlay has stolen pole position? Not at all. From what we've seen so far CarPlay isn't the perfect solution by any means.

The limited number apps, many of which simply duplicate the car's own systems, is something that will have to change. While some of the car manufacturers' integrations lack finesse. More importantly, the hybrid approach to infotainment has been built so that anyone will be able to join that party. So expect to see Android announcements very soon.