Android Auto: Google's head unit for cars explained

It should go without saying that using your smartphone while driving is unsafe and, in most places, illegal. For years the answer was to suction-cup a sat-nav system from the likes of TomTom or Garmin to your windscreen, replacing the often-terrible mapping system of the car itself. Then smartphone mapping apps improved and those started appearing on windscreens instead. But so did their hundreds of daily notifications and distractions in the form of emails, Instagram Likes and non-stop WhatsApp group chats. The solution is to marry your car’s physical controls, designed to be safely used while driving, with the power of a smartphone. This resulted in Apple and Google coming up with solutions for their customers; CarPlay for iPhone owners and Android Auto for Android fans. [Update: We've put Android Auto through the paces, both the tethered and wireless versions of the software, and you can read our in-depth impressions in our Android Auto review ! Also be sure to check out our Kenwood Excelon DMX905S review for a closer look at an Android Auto in-car unit.]
Connect your smartphone to the dash
What is Android Auto?
Android Auto casts a Google Now-like interface onto your car's infotainment display via USB. It's not the same as mirroring your phone onto the car display using HDMI, as the vehicle's touchscreen, steering wheel controls, buttons and control knobs remain functional when using Android Auto. But this doesn’t mean your entire phone interface appears on the car’s dashboard screen, because that would still be distracting and unsafe. Instead, Android Auto is more like a simplified version of Google Now, with the ability to make calls, play music stored on your phone, send dictated messages to contacts, and of course use Google Maps. Calls and messages will come through (although the latter are read out by Google Assistant instead of appearing on-screen), but all other notifications are completely hidden away in the background. You won’t even hear the ping of a new WhatsApp message until you disconnect your phone. Audio is sent to the car’s speakers via USB for music with no reduction in sound quality, unlike with Bluetooth audio streaming. Phone calls are handled via Bluetooth hands-free.
What does Android Auto look like?
Although your phone‘s processor is used to run Android Auto, your phone’s screen remains blank while the system is running to prevent distractions. Meanwhile, your car’s dashboard screen is completely taken over by the Android Auto interface. Once you get used to Android Auto, there’s no real need to go back to your car’s system. If you have to, in some models (like those from VW) a short press of the voice command button makes the car listen, while a long press summons Google Assistant. Android Auto has a permanent menu bar at the foot of the screen for quickly returning to the maps, phone or music app. There is also a button for accessing car information and diagnostics, but this is not supported by all manufacturers.
Android Auto should look familiar if you've used Google Now
The UI shares a lot with Google Now. It has that same card-based menu that's part of Google's unified design language, and it's laid out on a home screen with all of the predictions you'd expect. Without even having to think about it, Android Auto suggests directions on where you might want to go. This is based on recent searches or your daily routine. The weather, missed call or text alerts and in-progress music also appear within this very glanceable menu - it looks a lot like the Android lock screen with embedded notifications. The current time and your phone’s signal strength and battery percentage always appear in the top-right corner, along with a microphone icon. Tap this and you can talk to Google Assistant to get directions, make a phone call, send a text message, or even ask about the weather, or any random question you’d ask a Google Home smart speaker.
Which apps work with Android Auto?
The answer here is, not many. But that’s exactly the point. You don’t really need to know about that new Instagram message or Facebook event reminder until you get to your destination anyway, so it can’t be seen, heard or interacted with. Instead, you can use maps, make calls, send messages and listen to music, plus interact with a small number of third-party map and message applications.
Google Maps
What if your GPS knew where you were going before you had a chance to painstakingly enter the postcode, city, street name, etc., with the utmost accuracy? That's the not-too-unreasonable idea behind Google Maps within Android Auto. It often throws up the place you may be going next and gives you an ETA and better route options thanks to the latest traffic information. Beyond this Google Now predictive home screen, clicking into the Google Maps app brings up a familiar navigation interface, complete with dragging and pinch-to-zoom touch controls. Deeper menu options bring up lists for suggestions and categories, and exact locations can still be typed in or spoken with voice commands. Traffic can be unchecked, but it's on by default. Everything else about Google Maps looks familiar, and that's heartening.
Google Maps will get you where you're going
What's really great is that exiting the Google Maps app mid-trip places a navigation card on the Android Auto home screen. You can keep tabs on the turn-by-turn alerts while sorting through other notifications. Google Maps is many people’s preferred choice when navigating in the car, so having it right there in the dashboard - replacing the car’s own, often inferior system - is very welcome.
Phone calls
Safely fielding calls makes Google Dialer an important app within Android Auto, second only to getting where you want to go via Google Maps. Its menus include recent calls listed from your phone and the ability to touch 'Dial a number' to reach someone outside of your frequent contacts. The center-aligned contact list and dial pad is fairly large, which makes dialing someone up a lot easier while on the road. Microphone-initiated call functionality keeps the process even safer.
The call screen has big, easy to hit buttons
In-progress calls are themed with end and mute buttons, and there's a hidden dialer pad for entering long extensions mid-call - just in case you have to "please listen carefully, as our menu has changed." The phone app's ‘hamburger button’ in the top left reveals more options for voicemail, speed dial and missed calls. Digging isn't always necessary. Status bar notifications allow you to see calls, texts and other alerts as they come in, and it's easy to tap on them, then listen, then reply with voice commands and dictation.
Messages
Incoming messages appear as a notification at the top of the screen, just as they do on your Android phone. You can then tap on the notification to have the message read out to you or tap the X to dismiss. Once you have listened to a message you can tap the microphone icon, say 'Reply', then dictate your response. Best of all, Google’s app-agnostic nature means a wide range of messaging apps all work with Android Auto. Messaging works just as well if you use WhatsApp, Kik, Skype and others.
At the top, you can see messages peek in as status bar notifications
This alone won't reverse the distracted driving epidemic, but it's a whole lot better than having people take their eyes off the road for relatively unimportant reasons that can wait.
Music
This open approach to third-party apps is just as welcome when playing music through Android Auto. Of course, Google Play Music is front-and-center, pumping tunes through your car’s stereo as you drive along. You can control playback by tapping at the interface, or by saying out loud which artist, album or playlist you’d like to listen to. But there are other options here too.
Spotify is one of various supported music services
Content can also be played from Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, MLB, NPR and others. Android Auto’s music controls are fairly simple, with straightforward buttons and accompanying album art in the background. Streaming songs will use your data plan like normal.
Maps
Although Google Maps is the obvious choice for anyone needing navigation while they drive, Waze is also available. Bought by Google in 2013, Waze offers alternative driving routes based on the actions of its users. Say several Waze users head off the motorway to avoid a traffic jam, then head cross-country before joining again two junctions later; subsequent Waze users taking the same route will be offered this potential shortcut, avoiding the tailback.
Google Assistant is here
From the announcement of Android Auto in summer 2014 to the start of 2018, the AI you spoke with wasn’t exactly the same as that used by the Google Home smart speaker range. Sure, it sounded the same and could perform many of the same tasks, but it was technically Google’s Voice Search platform, rather than the full-fat Assistant. With full Assistant integration now available, you can expect to soon be able to control your smart home devices from the road. For example, you could ask Google to switch on the outside lights and open the garage door as you turn onto your street, or just turn the kitchen lights blue to annoy your family.
How do you control Android Auto?
Stow that Android phone. Google's in-car operating system has three alternative methods to controlling your smartphone:
Voice commands

Google's voice commands are the easiest way to go about the menu system hands-free. Tap the microphone icon in the top right corner to make calls, get directions, reply to texts and listen to music. You can even ask Google general knowledge questions as you drive along.
Physical buttons, knobs and dials

Like with Apple CarPlay , Android Auto can be used with whatever controls your car already has, be that buttons on the dash, buttons on the steering wheel, or a touch-sensitive display. Pressing the voice command button on the steering wheel, often right below your thumb, can be easier and less distracting than reaching over and tapping the on-screen microphone. Standard buttons and control knobs will also work, and relevant functions, like next and previous track, automatically pass onto Android Auto.
Touchscreen

Cycling through the Android Auto menu using the touchscreen is ideal for when the car isn't in motion. Yet it's simple enough to tap directly on what you want even when you're in a bind. Remember, this is a simplified version of your Android phone, so should quickly become familiar.
Android Auto vs Apple CarPlay
Android Auto and Apple CarPlay both offer a similar experience, projecting a cleaner version of their smartphone operating systems onto a car's head unit. The differences are subtle, but arguably favorable to Android Auto owners, as long as you own a phone that belongs to Google's popular platform. Android Auto's home screen is a bit smarter with Google Now, an idea Apple hasn't been able to replicate just yet. Google Now, with its suggestions of where to go based on your calendar and habits, helps Android Auto feel more personal and more closely tailored to you, whereas CarPlay does not. The menu colors and animations of Android Auto are also a little brighter and bolder compared to the darker, more subdued theme on CarPlay. Then, of course, there's the fact that Android Auto includes the more desirable Google Maps navigation. While Apple is open to third-party apps, Google Maps is not one of them. iPhone users are stuck with Apple Maps instead.
Apple CarPlay is a little more plain
Which cars support Android Auto?
Over 400 models of car currently support Android Auto, from more than 40 manufacturers.  Chances are - with the notable exceptions of Jaguar Land Rover, Bentley and Ferrari - you will struggle to name a new car sold today which doesn’t include Android Auto, either as standard or an optional extra.  According to Google, the system is coming to Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles soon.
Which phones support Android Auto?
All smartphones running Android 5.0 Lollipop or higher run Android Auto when connected via USB cable to a compatible vehicle. Because Android Auto runs on your phone, using its processor instead of the car’s, the performance can vary. Plug in an older phone and the system won’t be as smooth as when you use a Google Pixel 2 , or Samsung Galaxy S9 , for example.
Android Auto aftermarket solutions
As with CarPlay, Android Auto can be fitted to older cars by buying an aftermarket stereo. Counterintuitively, it is more likely that an older car can be upgraded to run Android Auto than a newer model. This is because older cars (think the early-2000s and older) used standard-sized stereos which could easily be taken out and swapped for a newer and better model, whereas newer vehicles have more shapely dashboards which cannot accommodate a rectangular head unit.
Expect the same aftermarket options as Apple CarPlay for older cars
Manufacturers like JBL, JVC, Pioneer and Kenwood all sell stereos with Android Auto - plus, in many cases, Bluetooth, DAB radio and Apple CarPlay.
Can I add Android Auto to my current car?
You're typically stuck with the software that ships with your factory system most of the time. However, Ford, Hyundai and Kia offer free software upgrades to some older vehicles that add Android Auto connectivity. These companies announced new vehicles with Android Auto, but previous models came with the same infotainment system hardware. Hyundai and Kia released free software updates for select 2014 and newer vehicles while Ford is working on bringing Android Auto to all vehicles with SYNC 3. If your car isn't in Ford, Hyundai or Kia's list, new hardware is required, unfortunately.
Are we there yet?
Google Maps is over 10 years old. It quickly unseated MapQuest as everyone's favorite way to print out directions on the computer. Remember those days? It continues to dominate today as an app, becoming one of the world's most popular phone apps even though it hasn’t come pre-installed on iPhones since iOS 7 way back in 2013.
Android Auto is on its way, but taking the scenic route
Android Auto represents the next ten years for Google Maps, with navigation where we need it most: preventing distracted drivers who pose a danger on the road. Hands-free directions, calls, messaging and music controls are powered by a familiar and easy-to-use Google Now interface, which in 2018 was upgraded with the power of Google Assistant. It's a winning combination over using manufacturer's vanilla nav systems. Google just needs to convince all car makers to park their coveted, yet often inferior systems and embrace the software many drivers are already carrying around in their pockets.
Android Auto is going wireless

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