We know that many of you read this site on your iPhones, and even if you’re reading this on a PC or Mac, chances are that you’re still at least aware of the news that yesterday, Apple announced an all-new iPhone, called the iPhone 5. (Just to make things even more complicated, it’s actually the 6th generation iPhone – original iPhone, 3G, 3GS, 4, 4S, 5). Also, the ubiquitous Apple 30-pin dock connector has been thrown out after years of loyal service, replaced by an all-new 8-pin connector called “Lightning.” That last point has implications for the auto industry.
“Vanilla” USB Connection
A majority of new cars sold today offer some sort of iPod/iPhone connectivity, usually via USB. If you have one of those vehicles and wish to connect an iPhone 5 to your car, you will either have to purchase an extra USB to Lightning cable from Apple, move the cable that comes with your phone to your home, to your office, and to your car, or buy a 30-pin-to Lightning adapter from Apple. Ford, for instance, allows you to connect a smartphone or music player with just a simple USB cable. The new iPhone 5 comes with one official Apple cable, but it’s $19.00 for a spare. And you’ll have to wait 2-3 weeks to get one from Apple at this point.
My personal 2008 Cadillac CTS has a proprietary AC Delco cable to connect to an iPhone. Why GM had to make it so complicated, I don’t know. (I also don’t know why the cable has to be so damn short, which requires you to either keep your phone inside the center console, or to pinch the cable in the console lid.) The cable (pictured) has a 30-pin connector on one and and a 1/8 inch stereo plug/USB connector on the other. If I try to use a plain Apple USB cable to connect my iPhone to the car, I’m told it’s an unrecognized device. The solution for me will probably be to buy the 30-pin to Lightning adapter, but it is really annoying that the adapter is $29.00 (or $39.00 for the cable version!) and the GM cable costs $21.51. Hyundai and Kia, among others, use a similar proprietary cable, so owners of those cars would need to do something similar, unless automakers create a new version that replaces the 30-pin connector with a Lightning connector.
It gets more complicated if you have one of the very slick iPhone docks in your car. For instance, some BMW models have an in-console iPhone cradle that the phone snaps into. At the base of the cradle is a 30-pin connector. Don’t forget, too, that the new iPhone is taller than the old ones. It seems unlikely that an iPhone 5 would fit into the dock height-wise, and especially not if it needs some sort of adapter on the bottom of the phone.
BMW was among the first automakers to offer iPhone connectivity, and the company seems to have a good relationship with Apple, so I would expect there to be some sort of accommodation developed. In the case of the BMW iPhone cradles, I’d wager that such an accommodation would include a retrofit of a different cradle (complete with different connector). I’d also wager that such a retrofit will not be cheap. Think hundreds of dollars, not tens of dollars.
Chinese Knockoff Cables? Not yet.
I get angry about Chinese knockoffs when it comes to electronics and cars. But I’m kind of OK with them when they save me money versus overpriced OEM connectors. The old 30-pin connectors have been around for so long (since 2003), that it was easy to buy knockoff cables for incredibly low prices on eBay. Two years ago, I bought a 10-pack of USB dock connector cables on eBay for about $10 with free shipping. I think I still have 5 or 6 left, even after giving one to a friend. Of note, the older iPhone 4 and 4S that will be sold alongside the new iPhone 5 will continue to use the old-style connector, as do the new iPad and iPad 2, at least for the time being. I haven’t checked yet, but I suspect that it will be a while before knockoff 8-pin cables are available for a song on eBay, so we may be stuck using the OEM cables made by Apple for a while – whether that means buying spares for the absurd prices that Apple charges, or moving your single cable around for a few weeks/months until the Chinese can make servicable copies.
You don’t need to worry about connectors if you are fortunate to have Bluetooth streaming audio in your vehicle. Many newer cars now have the feature, though it’s only become prevalent in the past few model years (mainly 2010 and newer, though of course that varies). The downsides of Bluetooth streaming are that 1) it’s a battery drain, versus a battery charging event with a cable connection, 2) you lack some of the control of the cable connection when operating your phone wirelessly, and 3) the audio quality is not as good as a with a cable connection. To me, the battery drain issue is the biggest one with Bluetooth audio (assuming you actually have it in your car), and that means either living with it (for shorter trips) or getting a 12 volt charger if you need to sustain the charge.
All of this falls under the category of “first world problems” (#firstworldproblems), but they’re important issues for automakers to work on and for consumers to consider. Wouldn’t it be disappointing to try to connect your shiny new iPhone 5 only to find out that it won’t work? Now you’ll be ready for that.