Android Auto: What It Is and How to Use It

Make almost any car your high tech toy

android auto
Android auto runs on your phone, but it can also interface with a lot of car radios.

bigtunaonline / iStock / Getty

Android Auto is an app that runs on most Android phones, but it doesn't do a whole lot on its own. It's more of an alternate way to control an Android phone that's easy to use when driving. The display is designed to be easier to read at a glance, and voice controls are heavily integrated via Google Assistant.

While Android Auto is capable of functioning as a standalone app, it's also built with touchscreen car radios in mind, which means that you can use other apps along with it. When connected to one of these compatible car radios, the app is capable of mirroring the phone display to the radio display and integrating with features like steering wheel audio controls.

Want to learn more about cool car gadgets? Read 5 Ways James Bond and His Cool Cars Influence Your Driving.

What Can Android Auto Do?

what is android auto
Android Auto is a skin for your phone that's designed for easy use in the car, but it can also interface with car radios.  Screenshot / Google

Android Auto can do pretty much anything that an Android phone can do on its own, but tweaked and fine-tuned for an automotive setting. The basic idea is that fumbling with a phone while driving is both difficult and inherently dangerous, and Android Auto helps alleviate some of that.

The three main functions of Android auto are turn-by-turn directions, hands-free calling, and an audio player, but the system can be customized beyond that. For instance, the turn-by-turn directions in Android Auto are handled by Google Maps, but Waze integration is supported as well.

The audio player in Android Auto is also very flexible. While the default is Google Play Music, and you can listen to the local library of songs on your phone, or Google Play Music All Access if you have it, the app also supports integration with services like Pandora and Spotify, podcatchers like Pocket Casts, and many others.

Android Auto also includes a built-in weather card to show the conditions in your current location, which is very useful on long road trips, integration with your phone's dialer, and supports other chat and voice apps like Skype.

When you receive a text message, or a message through an app like Skype, Android Auto is capable of reading it out loud so you don't have to take your eyes off the road.

How Do You Use Android Auto?

how to use android auto
You can use Android Auto on your phone or a compatible car radio. Screenshot / Google 

There are two different ways to use Android Auto: as a standalone experience on your phone, or in concert with a compatible car radio or infotainment system. Both methods provide similar utility, but integrating Android Auto with a compatible touchscreen car radio is the superior experience.

When using Android Auto by itself on a phone, there are a few different options available. The first is to fire up Android Auto when you get in your car, place the phone in an easily accessible mount or cradle, and call it good.

This most basic use of Android Auto provides access to hands-free calling, as the phone will default to speakerphone when placing or receiving a call. The phone display is also easier to read in this mode than it is without Android Auto running due to large text and a lack of clutter.

For a greater degree of integration, the phone can be paired with any Bluetooth-enabled car radio, or connected to the radio via an aux cable, FM transmitter, or any other similar method. This type of connection allows audio from Android Auto, like music from Spotify or directions from Google Maps, to play over the car audio system.

The other way to use Android Auto is to connect a compatible phone to a compatible car radio or infotainment system. This is accomplished by running Android Auto on the phone and then connecting it to a compatible vehicle via USB or Bluetooth. Doing so mirrors the display of the phone, in a slightly modified fashion, on the radio display.

When a phone is connected to a car radio via Android Auto, the phone display goes blank, and the radio display takes over. All of the same information that would normally display on the phone can be seen on the radio display.

Since car radio touchscreens are typically much bigger than phone screens, this makes it a lot easier to glance at turn-by-turn directions, or skip to the next song in a Spotify playlist, than it would normally be with just the phone.

How to Connect Your Phone to Android Auto

Connecting a phone to the radio or infotainment system in a car with Android Auto is easy, but a couple things need to happen before you even get started. First, the phone must be updated to at least Android 5.0 (Lollipop) or Android Auto won't work at all. The phone also needs to have Android Auto installed, and the car radio or infotainment system needs to be compatible with Android Auto.

If all of those boxes have been checked, then connecting a phone to Android Auto is a pretty easy process:

  1. Check your phone's internet connection. It will need a strong Wi-Fi or mobile data connection for this process to work.
  2. Ensure the vehicle is in park.
  3. Turn on the vehicle.
  4. Turn on the phone.
  5. Connect the phone to the vehicle via a USB cable.
  6. Review and accept the safety notice and the terms and conditions for using Android Auto.
  7. Follow the on-screen prompts on your phone. If you haven't set up Android Auto before, you will need to grant the app access to various permissions.
  8. Select the Android Auto app on the display of your car radio or infotainment system and follow the on-screen prompts.

After you have performed this process the first time, you will be able to plug your phone in via USB to activate Android Auto any time you want. If using a wired connection isn't convenient, then you can choose to pair your phone via Bluetooth instead.

Using Google Assistant With Android Auto

android auto google assistant
Google Assistant also works through Android Auto. Screenshot / Google

Google Assistant is directly integrated with Android Auto, which means you can access all of the same information you normally would without backing out of the app.

For instance, if you ask for nearby gas stations, Google Assistant will pull up a map of nearby gas stations without closing Android Auto. If you already have a route in progress, it will specifically show gas stations along that route.

Of course, Google Assistant integration goes far beyond your car. If you have smart lights or a smart thermostat hooked up to Google Home, you can ask Google Assistant, via Android Auto, to make sure things are nice and comfy when your long commute is finally over.

Using Apps With Android Auto

android auto apps
There are a bunch of apps that are designed to interface well with Android Auto. Screenshot / Google

In addition to the basic functionality that comes baked right in to Android Auto, it also has support for a number of other apps. The support is limited, and most Android apps don't meet Google's pretty stringent guidelines for Android Auto compatibility, but a ton of popular entertainment, information, and communication apps have made the cut.

To use an app with Android Auto, you first need to download and install it. If you already have an app, like Waze or Spotify, installed on your phone, then you're good to go. Since Android Auto just changes the way things display on your phone, there's nothing additional to install.

Some apps, like Amazon Music and Pandora, work whether or not the phone is connected to a compatible car radio. These apps can be accessed by tapping the headphone icon twice and then selecting the desired app.

Other apps, like Waze, only work when the phone display is mirrored to a compatible car radio display.

What Phones Does Android Auto Work With?

Android Auto works with most Android phones. The main requirement is that the phone has to be running Android 5.0 (Lollipop) or newer. That covers more than 90 percent of Android devices.

While Android Auto does work on Lollipop, Google recommends Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) for the best performance.

The capabilities of any given phone will also affect how well Android Auto runs. For instance, if a phone is already slow and unresponsive, it is unlikely to run Android Auto very well even if it does have an appropriate version of Android installed.

What Cars Does Android Auto Work With?

Android Auto compatibility is available from most automakers and a number of aftermarket car radio manufacturers. The list grows, and changes, with every new model year, but Chevrolet, Honda, Kia, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Volvo, and others all offer Android Auto integration in some or all of their vehicles.

On the aftermarket side, head units that are compatible with Android Auto are available from manufacturers like Kenwood, Panasonic, Pioneer and Sony.

Google maintains an exhaustive list of vehicles that are compatible with Android Auto, including current and planned models.