During Google’s annual developers conference this past spring, the company teased a version of its Android Auto software that would run entirely on an Android phone and not require a new car or aftermarket dashboard display. Now the company is starting to roll this software out to Android phone owners.
The new Android Auto app, which is an updated version of the existing app, offers a completely streamlined, easy-to-navigate phone interface for when you’re driving in a car. It also limits the amount of notification alerts you see, and includes the options to have your text messages read aloud to you and to respond to them using voice.
The new app shows just four icons at the bottom of the screen for Maps, phone calls, audio listening, and an enlarged home button — which maps back to Android Auto when running, instead of to the main home screen. At the top of the interface there’s a menu tap, and a microphone icon. Even without actively tapping the icons at the bottom, Android Auto will automatically show a series of cards once you’ve launched the app: right now as I write (not from a car), the main screen of Android Auto is showing music controls for Spotify, the weather in my current location, a missed phone call, and directions to a place I recently looked up in Google Maps.
Google says that any of the apps that have been previously supported in Android Auto — and there are more than 500 of them — will work within this application interface, too. That means popular apps like WhatsApp, Spotify, Pandora, and Pocket Casts will all work in there.
The new Android Auto is free to download, and will work on any Android device running Lollipop (OS version 5.0) or newer. It will be available in 30 countries.
One of the downsides of the Android Auto mobile app is that its "always-on" mode drains your smartphone’s battery life, although Mickey Kataria, director of product management for Maps and Android Auto, insists that using Android Auto would only drain battery life a "tiny bit more" than, say, running Maps in standard mode for an extended period of time. (The app also suggests that you tether your smartphone to a power source during the initial setup process.)
And while you’ll eventually be able to say "OK Google" to trigger voice control within Android Auto, that’s not something that is available at app launch. It’s an odd exclusion from an app that is, essentially, designed to have you tap and swipe less while you’re driving, but Google has indicated that "OK Google" will be rolled out in the coming weeks.
Still no Waze support in Android Auto
The new Android Auto also doesn’t include support for Google-owned maps app Waze, something else that was shown off at Google I/O back in May. Google didn’t share a timeline for when this would be coming.
But based on my experience with a beta version of Android Auto on the new Pixel phone over the past few days, the app still offers a much better experience than trying to unlock and swipe and tap through tiny app icons or small text within apps while also trying to safely operate a car. When I received text messages in Android Auto mode, I’ve been able to respond with an "I’m driving right now" text with one tap. It even has a smart activation feature: in the settings section of the app you can set the app to autolaunch when your phone wirelessly connects to your car’s Bluetooth.
Android Auto has shipped on more than 200 car models this year so far, and is available on a multitude of aftermarket display units as well. Apple’s own software for a smarter in-car experience, Apple CarPlay, is available in nearly 180 car models (according to the company’s website) as well as in aftermarket devices. But Apple hasn’t announced any plans to turn CarPlay into a mobile-only app on iOS. After using Android Auto, I can firmly say that it’s something Apple should consider offering consumers, even if it’s viewed as only an interim solution until all newer vehicles have more intuitive interfaces, or until more drivers upgrade to those newer vehicles.