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What Is Android Auto and Its Top 5 Functionalities

Announced at Google I/O 2014, Android Auto is Google’s way how to make the everyday driving experience smarter, safer, and much more convenient. Most of us can hardly imagine getting around an unfamiliar town without a smartphone telling us at which corner to turn and how long the trip will take. When we shop for groceries, we take for granted the ability to call our spouse and ask if there’s enough pasta for the dinner.

But when we do the same while driving a vehicle, we put ourselves and others at risk, dividing our limited attention between the smartphone screen and the road ahead. Android Auto “brings the most useful apps from your phone to your car’s screen, optimized for glanceability and readability while driving,” according to their official product description.

As part of the Open Automotive Alliance, an alliance of automotive manufacturers and technology companies aimed at using Android in automobile, developers of Android Auto work hand-in-hand with executives and engineers from car manufacturers, such as Audi, Honda, Kia, SEAT, Škoda, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, and many others, as well as software and semiconductor companies, and various electronics manufacturers.

If all of this sounds all too familiar to you, you are probably aware of CarPlay, an Apple standard that enables a car radio or head unit to be a display and controller for an iPhone. Indeed, Android Auto competes directly with the Cupertino company, but their advantage is a much larger ecosystem, which greatly contributes to Android Auto’s usefulness.

1. Android Auto Gives You Information at the Right Time

When most people use smartphones in cars, they clamp them in a windshield-mounted holder and do their best to navigate the user interface without killing too many pedestrians in the process. Some of the more cautious individuals do the setup before stepping on the gas pedal. Even then, it’s only a matter of time for a Facebook or Twitter notification to popup, text message to appear, and phone call to block the entire screen.

The solution? Take one hand off the wheel and do your best to dismiss the notification without accidentally calling your step-mother or taking an awkward selfie. Android Auto automatically organizes useful information into simple cards that appear just when they’re needed. It uses voice commands whenever possible, and its voice-guided navigation includes live traffic information, lane guidance, and more.

Being connected to your main Google account, Android Auto knows when to alert you about an upcoming appointment, remind you of your wedding anniversary, and so on.

2. Android Auto Makes Driving Safer

As described by Google, “Android Auto was designed with safety in mind. With a simple and intuitive interface, integrated steering wheel controls, and powerful new voice actions, it’s designed to minimize distraction so you can stay focused on the road.”

Android Auto apps sport a simplified user interface with large icons, simpler menu structure, and deeply integrated voice support. Apps like Pandora and Spotify really stand out with their bold background graphics and large controls, while still retaining the familiar and polished look of Google’s Material Design guidelines.

Since Android Auto was released as a stand-alone app, it’s possible to use it even with vehicles that don’t come with compatible head unit displays controlled by hardware buttons, but hands-free operation through voice commands is always emphasized to ensure safe driving.

3. Android Auto Gives Developers the Opportunity to Bring New Experience into the Car

As so many independent developers know, making an app is just the first step; getting it to people is what usually decides its fate. When Google rolled out their open mobile app store, the Android Market (as it was then called), on October 22, 2008, they empowered developers from around the world to create innovative solutions to, often seemingly trivial but nonetheless aching, daily problems.

Android Auto will do the exact same thing for the driving experience. There are already several compatible apps, including Google Maps, Google Play Music, MLB at Bat, Spotify, Songza, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, TuneIn, and more will be released in the future.

4. Android Auto Has Access to Automobile’s Sensors and Inputs

We’ve gotten used to praising the always increasing capability of smartphones, and we almost take for granted how smart a modern vehicle is, with built-in GPS and high-quality GPS antennas, steering-wheel-mounted buttons, high-fidelity sound systems, directional speakers, directional microphones, wheel speed control, and other things.

Android Auto leverages these sensors and input methods to make driving more comfortable, safer, and perhaps even enjoyable. Especially with the upcoming generation of electrical vehicles, it’s easy to imagine how all this technology could work together in a unison.

5. Android Auto Puts Google Maps in Your Dashboard

With almost 90% usage, Google Maps are by far the most popular mapping service in existence. Alternatives exist, such as Apple Maps or Bing Maps, but they all pale in comparison with the accuracy and informational density of Google’s product.

Android Auto puts Google Maps in your dashboard, allowing you to use features such as dynamic routing options, connected search, and cloud-based points of interest (POI) with an unprecedented level of comfort.

Current Limitations

Android Auto is still in early stages of its development. To take full advantage of its features, one needs an Android Auto compatible vehicle or aftermarket radio and an Android phone running 5.0 (Lollipop) or higher.

You can check out Google’s list to see if your car is compatible with Android Auto and to find manufacturers of compatible aftermarket head units. The good news is that the list is only getting larger. According to 9to5, “The first 2017 [Ford] models are already on sale at dealerships, including the Escape, Fusion, Mustang, and Explorer, with others due later this year. In addition, the company has promised to bring Android Auto to 2016 models equipped with Sync 3.”

Another limitation is one’s geographical location. Android Auto is currently available in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Germany, Guatemala, France, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela. You can use Android Auto outside these countries, but most features won’t work properly or at all.

The app itself still needs a lot more polishing before it can hit the mainstream. As Ken Varn put it in his review posted on the Play Store, “[Android Auto] will make phone calls with voice commands, but will not read text messages with voice commands. It also requires USB connection in addition to a Bluetooth connection.”

Our Take

Google’s take on the smart driving concept, so far, looks very promising, but the technological giant still has some work to do. Given how they managed to nurture Android from an ugly fledgling into the most-used mobile operating system in the world, we have no reason to doubt that they can do the same with Android Auto.