As a legally Blind person, Apple’s CarPlay has long been one of those offerings from the company that literally is not for me. My low vision precludes me from obtaining a driver’s license and, by extension, a car—so what good would CarPlay do me if I can’t drive a car with which to use it? I had a similar feeling toward Apple TV for many years. I’ve only had high-definition televisions at home in the last three years; before then, there was little reason to get excited about (let alone cover) the streaming box and tvOS since I didn’t have a TV that could take full advantage of its capabilities.
As fate would have it, my girlfriend’s dad is on a two-month road trip across part of the country in his RV this summer. He isn’t due home until September, so he’s graciously letting us babysit his brand-new 2021 Nissan Rogue Sport in the meantime. The vehicle supports CarPlay over USB, and I’ve been noodling around with the software a lot while riding shotgun over the last couple weeks. I made peace long ago with the fact my disability prevents me from experiencing being behind the wheel and the freedom it affords. I’m happy to report I’ve delightfully discovered in my brief time with CarPlay that infotainment systems are highly relevant to me as a passenger.
Turns out, CarPlay is way more accessible—and way nicer—than Nissan’s software.
This is not an exaggeration. Others with more experience using CarPlay surely can attest to its shortcomings and what needs improving. As a visually impaired person, however, I can say with certainty CarPlay is the best infotainment system I’ve ever used. Navigating the user interface—as well as literally navigating somewhere—is a far more accessible experience than using Nissan’s built-in OS. Not only do CarPlay’s iOS underpinnings allow for comfort and familiarity at a conceptual level, the large icons and text make tapping and swiping a breeze. All told, CarPlay is markedly better.
Consider, for instance, navigation. My girlfriend oftentimes will task me with navigating to a place when she needs directions. In her own car, a 2013 Honda Civic, I’m usually using Maps on her iPhone XS to announce turns and freeway exits and the like. (Honda’s infotainment system has a display, but it’s basic and doesn’t have navigation.) It works, but it’s tedious and stressful on me as the anointed navigator. What’s more, the lack of a screen means we miss auditory and visual feedback whilst traveling through an unfamiliar area. Compare that setup with using CarPlay in the SUV, and it’s not difficult to see why I’m so bullish on Apple’s technology. It truly is a night and day difference in terms of ease of use and, crucially for me, accessibility.
When we get in the car, I plug my girlfriend’s phone into Lightning and the CarPlay UI immediately shows up. I can then search for a place in Maps on the phone and directions appear on CarPlay after I tap Go. Because the CarPlay interface is so big (especially relative to the iPhone), she can both hear and see where we need to go. My duties navigating the navigation are finished, at least until we need to give back the car. The benefits are twofold: I have less stress and cognitive load placed upon me; and she, as the driver, has a much better means with which to get from Point A to Point B. In practice, CarPlay has fundamentally changed how we use the car.
Apple rightfully has made CarPlay pretty bare-bones functionally; what you can do is limited to audio-centric activities like listening to music and podcasts, as well as using Siri to handle calls and recite text messages. My father-in-law has Sirius XM via the Nissan OS (he says he’s “perfectly happy with 20th century technology” and steadfastly refuses to upgrade his flip phone to an iPhone), so we’ve been listening to music via satellite radio rather than the Music app. Maps is CarPlay’s killer app, but it’s early days. We’re bound to explore more of CarPlay’s capabilities as we use it.
In a broad scope, Apple’s automotive solution shows just how poorly car manufacturers have designed their onboard software systems. Even for an abled person, the Nissan OS is a confusing, incongruent mess all around. There seemingly was zero attention paid to good user interface design, never mind good accessible design. By contrast, CarPlay is a triumph in terms of clarity, responsiveness, and usability. It may not be perfect, but it absolutely runs circles around Nissan. Importantly, it serves as yet another example Apple is a software company at heart.
Whether someone with a disability benefits from CarPlay is dependent on their disability. CarPlay does not support VoiceOver, so a totally Blind person likely won’t get much use out of it. Likewise, whether one can manipulate the user interface will largely depend upon the strength of their fine-motor skills. And of course, whether one can competently use Siri will depend upon the nature of their speech delay and the assistant’s ability to parse it. Overall, however, CarPlay is indeed a compelling infotainment solution for disabled passengers who struggle to use whatever a car maker built. For picking the music to getting places and more, CarPlay has ramifications that affect more than only the person actually driving the car.