The Complete Guide to Android Auto

Google Maps, voice commands, messaging, and more in your car

Android Auto
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Android's on your smartphone, your tablet, your TV, your wrist, and even in your car. If you drive a relatively new car or rent cars, you've experienced what's called an infotainment system. Replacing the radio dials of yore, infotainment systems offer on-screen navigation, radio controls, hands-free calling, and more. More often than not, the screen that you use to make your way through the interface is not a touch screen—you have to use a dial on the middle console or steering wheel, and it's often unwieldy.

Android Auto takes the experience you're used to on your smartphone and brings it to your dashboard. It's not perfect, but it has potential.

To use Android Auto, you need compatible vehicle or aftermarket radio and an Android phone running 5.0 (Lollipop) or higher. When you connect your Android smartphone to the vehicle or radio, the Android Auto interface appears on your vehicle's screen. If you're driving a compatible vehicle, you'll also be able to use steering wheel controls. Google has a list of compatible cars that's constantly being updated. Car brands include Acura, Audi, Buick, Chevrolet, Ford, Volkswagen, and Volvo. Aftermarket manufacturers include Kenwood, Pioneer, and Sony.

Since Android Auto isn't a separate operating system, like Android TV and Android Wear, developers don't have to build separate apps. However, due to regulations on car infotainment systems, there are many restrictions on what can appear on the screen and what drivers can interact with in order to reduce distracted driving.

The apps you use on Android Auto are modified and will have some limitations, but hopefully, developers won't let this stop them.

Google Maps Navigation

Having Google Maps as your navigation software is probably the biggest perk. You get the familiar GPS app that you probably use for walking, transit, and driving directions anyway, with voice-guided navigation, traffic alerts, and lane guidance.

In addition, you get the benefit of your vehicle's GPS and wheel speed, which is more accurate and spares battery life. As Consumer Reports points out, you also get access to free map updates, which are often costly or tedious to download. You can exit the Google Maps app while navigating if you want to check notifications or change the music. A reviewer at TechRadar notes that this creates a navigation card on the Android Auto home screen so you can easily return to the app or view turn-by-turn alerts.

Another benefit to having Google in your car is that Android Auto will remember your recent searches, and thus will suggest directions or destinations when you launch Google Maps. Android Auto can also detect when your vehicle is in Park and will enable more options since you don't need to keep your eyes on the road. According to Ars Technica, this includes a full search bar and on-screen keyboard; options will vary depending on the app.

In-Car Entertainment

Google Play Music is onboard and if you've never used the service, you may be eligible for a free trial. You can also use non-Google apps, including Amazon Music, Audible (audio books), Pandora, Spotify, and Stitcher Radio for Podcasts.

If you want to listen to AM/FM or satellite radio, you have to switch over to the vehicle's infotainment system, which can be tedious. Here's hoping Google finds a way to integrate this down the road. Since your phone is plugged into the stereo, your music is transmitted by USB, which is higher quality than when it is compressed via Bluetooth.

Notifications, Phone Calls, Messaging, Voice Commands and Text-to-Speech

On the other hand, hands-free phone calls happen over Bluetooth. (See what I did there?) You can access recent calls as well as a phone dialer for contacts you don't call very often.

Notifications include missed calls, text alerts, weather updates, and music tracks. The screen also displays the time as well as your phone's battery life and signal strength. There's also a persistent microphone icon for voice searches. Oddly, you can't activate voice search by saying "OK Google" as you would on an Android smartphone. Instead, you either tap that microphone icon or use a steering wheel button if you have a compatible vehicle. Once you do so, you can ask a question or use a voice command, such as "send message to Molly on my way" or "what is the capital of West Virginia?" The latter is one way to entertain yourself when driving solo. Android Auto mutes the music and turns down the heat or air conditioning it can hear your voice commands and searches. It also supports a handful of third-party messaging apps including WeChat and WhatsApp.

One issue the Ars Technica reviewer has is with message replies. When you receive a text message, it's read to you by a text-to-speech engine. In order to reply, you have to say "reply" and then wait for it to say "OK, what's your message?" You can't just say "reply to Mary see you soon." In order to maintain driving safety standards, Android Auto doesn't display the actual text of incoming messages, so if you say "reply," it's possible your message could reach the wrong person. 

If you're unlucky enough to receive a text message that contains a link, the engine will read out the entire thing, letter by letter, slash by slash. (H-T-T-P-S COLON SLASH SLASH W-W-W—you get the idea.) Google needs to figure out a way to recognize links since the reading out of an entire URL is not only incredibly annoying but also entirely useless.


That said, Android Auto has promise and it will be interesting to see support from more car manufacturers and apps.