(John M. Vincent / U.S. News and World Report)

Apple CarPlay is rapidly becoming a must-have feature for owners of iPhones who are in the market for a new car. Its integration into your car’s infotainment system goes far beyond Bluetooth telephone and audio connectivity to safely provide many of your iPhone’s functions while you are driving.

It takes years for car manufacturers to design and build new products, but consumers have become accustomed to a more rapid cycle of new smartphone features. Smartphone integration systems, such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, enable users to have the latest features, which can be updated throughout the car’s life without changing any of the vehicle’s hardware.

CarPlay users will always have the most up-to-date maps, apps, and contacts available – all streamed from their iPhone. Apple CarPlay is part of the phone's iOS software, and an Apple-CarPlay-capable vehicle just displays the content that the phone provides.

How Do I Make Apple CarPlay Work?

In most cases, you just plug your iPhone (iPhone 5 through iPhone X models will work) into a compatible car's USB port using an Apple-certified Lightning cable, then answer a prompt to unlock the function on the phone. In a few cases, you will have to tell the infotainment system to enable CarPlay. A small but growing number of vehicles can connect via wireless CarPlay without any cables.

CarPlay will only work with iPhones. Apple iPads, Android devices, and laptops are not supported by the system.

As soon as you plug in or wirelessly connect, the screen will shift to the familiar rows of iPhone-style icons. You can then use the system with the car’s existing buttons and dials, whether your vehicle includes a touch screen, jog dial, or touchpad. The voice command buttons in most cars are replaced by Siri when CarPlay is running, and Siri is the easiest way to access most functions.

What Can Apple CarPlay Do?

(John M. Vincent / U.S. News and World Report)

CarPlay makes it easy to control the essential functions of your iPhone, plus a selected group of apps, using the car's existing controls – with a minimum of driver distraction.

Messaging with CarPlay is easy. When you receive text messages, they are read in Siri’s voice (which has gotten more natural with the latest iOS update). You can create a text either by responding to an incoming message or by creating a new one by telling Siri to text someone in your contacts list. It then uses voice-to-text to craft the message. CarPlay uses your car’s microphone, so your phone can remain safely stowed in your pocket or the car’s center console while you are texting.

Taking or making a phone call is just as easy. As with a Bluetooth connection, when the phone rings, you simply press your car's call pickup button or the answer button on the infotainment screen and start your conversation. When you make a call, you tell Siri who from your contact list to call or read the number and CarPlay handles the connection.

Even if your car does not have a built-in navigation system, CarPlay can provide one. In many ways, the Apple system is better than onboard systems, as the Apple Maps are updated continuously, and routes reflect traffic conditions. (You often have to go to the dealer to update your car’s built-in navigation maps.) The downside is that it uses your phone's data plan to stream the mapping info.

CarPlay can access your music, podcasts, and other streaming content either by accessing the iTunes app on your phone or using third-party apps such as Pandora, Amazon Music, NPR One, or Spotify to flow content to your car. The list of apps is growing as app developers create interfaces that mimic CarPlay’s simplified look.

It’s important to note that, as with map data, streaming entertainment content through your phone from external sources uses your phone’s data plan.

What Does Apple CarPlay Look Like?

(John M. Vincent / U.S. News and World Report)

When you buy or lease a new car, you get an infotainment system with the look and feel that the manufacturer designs. Start up CarPlay, however, and the screen on your dashboard transforms to look like a simplified version of your iPhone home screen, with a couple of rows of large icons to select from.

It’s an intentionally simplified version of your phone, with many non-essential or distractive elements eliminated for safety. It is not intended to replace all of the functions of the car’s screen. You’ll likely, for example, have to toggle out of CarPlay to access the car’s climate control and vehicle setup functions.

Apple strictly controls the look and feel of the screen and does not allow car manufacturers to significantly alter the provided content. That's both a strength and a weakness. In many ways, it limits distractions, but it can also lead to issues, such as blocking the outside temperature readout in many General Motors vehicles.

Which Cars Support Apple CarPlay?

The list of vehicles with Apple CarPlay support grows every day and includes models from most major auto manufacturers. Many support both CarPlay and Android Auto, so if some of the drivers in your household have Android phones, you’ll all have ways to connect smartphones to the car.

Ford’s latest SYNC 3 system supports CarPlay, as does the newest version of UConnect from Chrysler.

Notably absent from the list of manufacturers that support CarPlay are Toyota and Lexus. None of their vehicles support the technology due to disagreements over who should own the data that the system tracks as you drive.

If you have an older car or a new car that does not support CarPlay, you can still get it. Several audio system manufacturers, including Pioneer, Sony, and Alpine, make aftermarket systems that are CarPlay-compatible, though you will have to replace your current infotainment setup to take advantage of the new technology.