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Google continues to push boundaries as its Android brand grows, introducing new technologies, products, and devices that often leave some of its competitors trailing in its wake.
The latest idea to come out of their Mountain View headquarters is Android Auto, an Android-powered in-vehicle infotainment display. After grabbing headlines at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, we take a more detailed look at what it is and the advantages it’ll offer users.
What Is It?
It’s long been possible to connect your Android to a car’s audio system, but the concept for a more full-featured product was first announced at Google’s I/O conference in June 2014. The technology itself is part of the Open Automotive Alliance, an initiative launched by 28 car manufacturers in 2014’s CES that has the sole aim of starting to use the Android OS in cars.
The primary goal of Android Auto is to allow the OS to take control of a car’s dashboard head unit, thus offering the driver Android-backed navigation and apps, as well as certain in-car controls such as starting the engine, locking the doors, and sounding the alarm.
What Can It Do?
The main screen will be familiar to long-time users of Android. It uses a card-based system like Google Now to deliver pertinent information to you as you’re driving.
The official website uses the example of reminding you to buy sunscreen as you’re driving to the beach, but it’s easy to see how this could be extended to everyday situations such as reminding you to buy milk before you get home, or prompting you to take your presentation with you as you’re heading to the office.
Away from the main screen, the technology can be broken down into four key components: maps, music, apps, and voice control.
The most obviously useful and appealing feature is the integration of Google Maps. The flagship app will power a GPS and navigation system that will incorporate voice-guided directions, on-the-go live traffic updates, and guidance on which lanes to use, amongst several more yet-to-be-announced features.
Google Play Music will also be directly integrated, meaning you’ll be able to listen to any of the songs you have uploaded to the free service directly through your in-car stereo without having to use up valuable disk space on your actual device. Currently you’ll need an All Access Google Music subscription to upload more than 20,000 songs or download tracks for offline playback.
Additionally, Android Auto aims to make it simple for you to use your favourite apps and content whilst you’re on the road. Support for popular releases such as Spotify, Soundcloud, Whatsapp, Kik, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, and Songza have already been confirmed, with several more confirmations to follow in the coming weeks and months.
The whole system has been designed in a safety-conscious way, with a method of usage that’s intended to minimise distractions whilst you’re driving. It means steering wheel controls are supported and you’ll be locked out of using the phone itself when Android Auto is in use — but the standout safety feature is voice control. It’ll allow users to launch apps, answer calls, and play entertainment without lifting their eyes from the road.
Although the aforementioned four ingredients make it more than apparent that Android Auto is already well on its way to solving in-car navigation and entertainment in a way that car companies have so far failed to do, there are lots of other noteworthy features. They include the ability to make and receive calls, voice-controlled web searches, a way to control the speakers’ fade and balance, and continuous monitoring of in-car data such as speed, distance travelled, and fuel level.
Hyundai is currently offering the most cohesive solution, and perhaps also offering a glimpse into the future of the system. Their Blue Link technology makes use of Android Auto to integrate with other tools such as car alarms and car starters, and they supported this by developing an accompanying Android Wear app that allows users to remotely start or stop the engine, lock or unlock the doors, flash the lights, beep the horn, or geo-locate the car.
Who Can Use It?
If your car supports it, and you have a phone or tablet running Android Lollipop (Android 5.x), you’ll be able to connect your device via the car’s USB port.
Currently, twenty eight car companies have confirmed their involvement. They are: Abarth, Acura, Alfa Romeo, Audi, Bentley, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Jeep, Kia, Maserati, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Opel, RAM, Renault, SEAT, Skoda, Subaru, Suzuki, Volkswagen, and Volvo. The first cars that support Android Auto were released in late 2014.
Competitors And Alternatives?
Google most obvious competitor to Android Auto is the offering from their long-term rival, Apple. The Cupertino-based firm have a similar product called CarPlay, which was introduced in iOS 7.1. Like Auto, it also uses a car’s dashboard display to control the car’s entertainment, make calls, and get directions, though one drawback of the Apple product is that it uses the company’s inferior (but improving) maps software, rather than Google’s ubiquitous app.
A Ferrari FF was the first car to be delivered with a fully functioning version of CarPlay in September 2014, and since then several of the same manufacturers who support Android Auto have also signed up.
Of course, if you have an old car or an older non-Lollipop Android, there are also lots of dashboard ‘car mode’ apps to choose from which will turn your device into an in-car display unit.
Like all new technologies, initial tests having uncovered issues and occasionally jarring user experiences.
The nature of the technology means users will be facing with two interfaces on their dashboard, that of Android Auto and that of the car manufacturer. It’s clear that some functions will be supported by Android and others won’t.
For example, while Spotify is supported, if you want to listen to the car’s FM radio you’ll need to exit Auto and navigate via the car’s interface. To a user, this distinction is arbitrary and could quickly become frustrating.
One solution might be for car manufacturers to publish their own Android apps that can control a vehicle’s built-in functions, but there is little suggestion from Google nor the 28 manufacturers that the idea is being developed. Some manufacturers (such as Volvo) have solved the problem by using a large screen that displays both Android and the car’s UI simultaneously, but this solution seems more cumbersome than simply developing an app.
Useful Or Gimmicky?
Could you see yourself using Android Auto? Is it a viable alternative to traditional GPS systems and plug-and-play MP3 players?
What about the future of the Internet of Things and connected-cars? How far can the technology develop? Do you see Auto as a precursor and possible market entry route for Google’s self-driving cars?
We’d love to hear your thoughts. You can let us know your opinions in the comments below.