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Inside look at Google's Android Auto in action

I was given a test ride in a Hyundai Sonata featuring Android Auto, and got a glimpse into the future of the in-car experience.

031915 android auto pioneer
Credit: Google

Today, Google and Pioneer announced three aftermarket stereo systems using Android 5.0 for entertainment, navigation, and communications. This partnership with Pioneer moves interaction with the mobile apps from the handheld smartphone to the dashboard display, with hopes of reducing car accidents from smartphone-induced driver distraction, which the National Safety Council recently estimated (PDF) causes one in four accidents.

The announcement officially means Android Auto is out of beta and also foretells that smartphone-compatible cars will soon appear in car dealer showrooms. Hyundai announced at the LA Auto Show that it will deliver Android Auto on some of its 2015 model year cars, and Google has an extended list of car maker partners expected to introduce new 2016 model-year cars with Android Auto support.

Car manufacturers haven't picked a side between Android Auto and Apple's Car Play – cars will soon get a lot smarter and will sense and adapt to the driver's smartphone with a smooth, familiar, and safe digital experience. A car buyer who has invested $30,000 or more in a new car will replace a smartphone if it doesn't integrate features like navigation, music, and communications, into the car's dashboard and display.

The first aftermarket head unit integrated with a smartphone is a big deal because it is really difficult to create a safe and robust user interface (UI) without increasing driver distraction. Driver distraction isn't measured in comparison to the unsafe use of a hand-held smartphone, but rather in comparison to other integrated navigation, entertainment, and communications dashboard systems that the car manufacturers develop themselves, in accordance with safety standards. This distinction is important because neither a car manufacturer nor smartphone maker bears any liability for the harm caused by a driver's unsafe use of a smartphone.

But by integrating Android with the dashboard, Google and its auto partners could be liable for harm caused by driver distraction. For example, GM has paid more than $10 billion for lawsuits, Reuters reported last summer. But from a safety perspective, it's the right thing for all parties to do. That is, if it's done correctly.

Last week, Android Auto product manager Daniel Holle gave me a demonstration of an Android Auto-equipped Hyundai Sonata using a Nexus 5 with Android 5.0 and an Android Auto-compatible stereo system that industry insiders call the head unit. Google has improved and polished Android Auto since the preview release I saw last June at Google's software developer conference, Google I/O.

At the start of the demonstration, Holle connected his Nexus 5 into the Sonata's dashboard, automatically locking out any unsafe apps, such as videos, games, and texting. The Nexus 5 commandeered the dashboard display using a new UI designed for the automobile that reduced the text elements on the screen in favor of larger buttons for improved touch interaction, integrated phone and entertainment controls with the steering wheel, and of course enabled "OK Google" voice commands. Except for a little branding, it wasn't a demonstration of smartphone apps on the dashboard screen; it was an integrated digital automotive experience with personalized navigation, communications, and entertainment by a smartphone that already knows the driver's preferences.

Using large icons and voice commands as we drove around Mountain View, California, Holle demonstrated navigation by accessing directions to a Starbucks, entertainment by searching for specific songs, albums and playlists, and communications using voice commands to make phone calls and dictate text messages.

From a safety perspective, text messages both outnumber phone calls and are also far more distracting. When a text arrives, Android Auto will announce it and ask if it should read the message aloud. The driver can respond via voice commands. This isn't reserved to new and yet-to-be-released cars with Android Auto integration; anyone with an Android 5.0 smartphone can experience this by putting their device in a cup holder. Android's motion sensors recognize car travel and will announce incoming calls and texts and respond to voice commands.

In the spirit of true cooperation, Holle demonstrated not just Google Play music, but competitors Spotify and iHeartRadio, all using a common set of UI elements adapted to the individual brands. With 120 million people spending over an hour in the car per day, the connected car is a big media and advertising opportunity, making this cooperation commendable. It's clear all parties have driver safety at the top of mind.

Android Auto isn't just open to the biggest, most popular apps built by the biggest developers, Holle says. Developers use the Android Auto library to build apps that can be cast to the dashboard display and use the touch and voice command UI. The Android Auto library enforces safe interactions intended to reduce driver distraction. Google also has a team that double checks the implementations of the interactions when submitted to the Google Play store. Once connected, only apps that use this library will work. Android Auto restricts the driver from unsafe behavior without limiting his or her options for communications, navigation, and entertainment.

There's no question that this is the future of driving. The computer in the dashboard that runs the steering wheel controls and dashboard display will adapt to the driver's smartphone and preferences. A friend's car or a rental car will adapt and operate with an individual's smartphone in exactly the same way as the driver's own car.

Seeing the operation of either the Pioneer after-market head unit or the integrated Hyundai Sonata unit will make every smartphone-owning driver want one. This integration will become a differentiating factor that will determine the car that buyers choose to buy.

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