Android Auto extends your phone to your car

At the auto show in Los Angeles last week, I got a chance to kick the tires on Android Auto, Google’s new automotive platform.

car secondary image

Android Auto in a Hyundai Sonata

Credit: Hyundai

For those who’ve hacked an Android tablet as navigation and entertainment device for the car, as I have, here’s some good news for you: no more hacks.

Android Auto is a seamless cast of your Android phone-to-car center-stack. Google and Hyundai demonstrated the kit in a 2015 Hyundai Sonata last week at the pre-auto show here in sunny Los Angeles. I had a chance to give it a try.

Background

One of the reasons that center console navigation systems look hokey and antiquated, even on even brand-new cars, is that they are. It generally takes auto-makers five or more years to cycle their in-car tech hardware.

Android Auto from Google reckons it’s got the solution to this problem, and that’s to treat the center-stack screen as just that, a screen hooked-up to speakers.

Computing power, interface, connectivity and media derive from the continually updated phone that we already have pocketed or lying on the dash. Consequently, in-dash navigation and entertainment is retired.

How it works

The head unit in the vehicle’s center stack negotiates with a USB-connected Android Lollipop phone, figuring out that it’s automotive-enabled.

A different view of the phone

The phone then drives audio and video onto the head-unit screen, providing an aspect-changed rendition of some phone elements, like maps, music and texts.

Connecting

Google says that wire is used to connect partly because Bluetooth can’t handle the media. Automatically connecting Bluetooth, though, can be used for telephony.

And that’s one of the things that’s interesting about Android Auto—it lays over the top of an OEM, or Original Equipment Manufacturer, factory system.

Most cars have built-in Bluetooth telephony anyway, so Android uses it, along with the existing steering wheel buttons.

In the Hyundai’s case, it also uses the OEM AM/FM radio.

Android is just brought in to handle stuff poorly managed by existing OEM solutions, like maps, navigation, and voice-to-text messaging.

Think of it like an app on top of the OEM offering.

Driver distraction

Since the invention of the seat belt, car makers have been understandably obsessed with consumer safety—the customers can’t die, or there’ll be no one to buy cars.

Google, in Android Auto, has limited the number of steps you can take to perform a task, to three.

Voice control is heavily featured and Google told me it’s hoping most people use voice to control the system, in particular for texting.

Although you can change music, you can’t touch addresses on the screen while the vehicle is in motion.

Luckily, we’ve come a way since Marx Brothers-esque voice commands like “Get me Trinidad,” responded with “Hello Dad."

Backend

An upgraded Lollipop Google Play Services with Android Auto baked in means every Android Lollipop phone will have the backend, even without the app. So every Android device will be able to connect quickly.

In the demonstration that I saw, a fresh Lollipop phone configured and connected to the Hyundai in a couple of seconds.

Build-out

In terms of car installs, the idea is that an auto manufacturer gets its center-stack equipment maker to include a Google-specific receiver. That receiver converses with the Android Auto-baked phone. They then share information like what’s on the phone and what’s in the stack.

API

Google has just launched its Android Auto API for media and messaging. It is media where Google thinks that users have strong preferences on which apps to use. The Hyundai get-up, for example, already includes Spotify and Google Play Music.

The API lets developers build Android Auto apps based on Android Auto’s look and feel.

Look and feel

I’d say the whole thing resembles Google Now in its look and voice interaction.

Maps are cleaner with larger text and fewer labels than the phone version. The labels are bigger, so that you can glance, rather than squint.

The big question for me, though, is just what am I going to do with my mounted in-car tablet?

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