Android Auto explored: Taking Google on the road
Android Auto has been around for a number of years. Announced in 2014, Android Auto first made its appearance in third-party head units, such as some from Pioneer, with a number of car manufacturers confirming they would be offering it in the future.
The car market moves a lot slower than the smartphone market and since Android Auto’s inception, you’ve probably got through several phones, without ever seeing Android Auto in action. But those cars are starting to hit the road and as the old cliché goes, the future is now.
We spent some time diving a little deeper into Android Auto on the new Audi A3 to see how it all fits together.
What is Android Auto?
Audi has updated the A3, its best-selling model in the UK, bringing with it Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support through its MMI infotainment system.
Android Auto (and Apple CarPlay) on the A3 means it’s going to be available to a lot of people – as will be the case when Ford Sync 3.0 lands in the UK later in 2016 – when these services are really going to hit the big time.
The idea behind Android Auto is to seamlessly bring Android into the infotainment system of your car with minimal hassle. It’s basically a bespoke mirrored experience, drawing from your phone an interface that’s suitable for driving. This is different from some Android-based in-car systems, as Android Auto is actually running on your phone, just displayed and controlled using your car’s hardware.
In most cases, you simply have to connect via USB and you’re done. For the Audi A3, we connected the HTC 10 to the USB port hidden in the (optional) “phone box” hiding under the central armrest. The phone box also offers Qi wireless charging, so if you dump your Samsung Galaxy S7 in it, for example, it will charge, but if you’re hooking up to USB to use Android Auto, you’ll be charging anyway.
Android Auto: The app
You can download the Android Auto app for your device from Google Play. If you don’t have the app and you connect to a compatible car, you’ll be prompted to download it, but there’s nothing to stop you installing it in advance.
Once you have it installed and you connect to the car, there’s a whole range of things to agree too, the normal legal disclaimers and so on, as well as granting the app permission to access a range of things on your phone.
The app will handle establishing a Bluetooth connection to the car and for the Audi A3, that means you’ll then have all your contacts available to use with the car’s phone support, becoming completely integrated with both Android Auto and Audi’s existing MMI system without having to pair Bluetooth devices via the traditional method.
One feature of the app that we really like is that it remembers its last location when it was connected. That means that when you park, you can see at a glance where you left your car. Although Google Now has offered the feature for some time, it doesn’t always seem to know when you’re parked and when you’re not.
Android Auto: User interface and features
Android Auto has the capacity to make your dumb car smarter, or bring familiarity to your already smart car.
It’s simple, it offers basic functions and it’s designed to stop you fiddling with your phone when driving. In some ways it replicates “car mode” that some phones offer, but without having to dock your phone as an additional display. With a central main home page, you then have the option of moving between a number of major functions: navigation, calling and music.
In the Audi A3, Android Auto sits as a layer on top of the existing system as soon as you plug it in, so as we’ve said, you still get access to both systems. The final option from Android Auto’s home screen is to return to the native Audi MMI interface. One can’t replace the other, because things like car controls or the radio will still live in the car’s systems and you’re not sacrificing one because of the other.
Android Auto: Audi controls
For the Audi A3, which doesn’t have a touchscreen, control is through MMI’s existing controls, namely that four-way click wheel on the transmission tunnel. It only takes a few minutes to become familiar, essentially clicking left to open side menus, rotating the dial to move through options, clicking up and down to move around, and so on.
On car systems that offer touch, you’ll be able to hit the display to control Android Auto instead. For those familiar with the Audi MMI controls, it feels logical and seamless, with no need to look down at the controller, so it’s easy to use on the road with minimal distraction.
There’s very little cross-over to steering wheel controls in the Audi, as many of these are used to control the driver’s display. Things like skipping tracks and voice control does work through the same controls however, but more on that later.
It’s also worth noting that at the same time, your phone is essentially disabled. It shows “Android Auto” on the display, you can swipe to see notifications, but the idea is that when you’re in the car, you leave it alone.
Android Auto: Notifications
The central home screen of Android Auto gives you card-style notifications, in major categories, very much like a Google Now experience. It gives you the time it will take to drive home – a Google Now favourite – with the option to click through and start that navigation.
You can sit on that home screen with an overview of navigation instructions or playing music, without being in that specific section.
It will also serve up messaging notifications, with the offer to read them out to you, which is really handy. You then get the option to speak the reply, which is a little like the Android Wear voice experience, i.e., sometimes a bit hit and miss, but as it’s Google, you probably already know what works.
Voice is fully integrated across the experience as you’d expect. Audi also offers voice control in its cars and you can still get to both systems. A short press on the steering wheel voice button uses Audi’s own system. A long press gets you to Ok Google.
The Google offering extends far beyond what you can see, because you can ask questions of Google and get a useful response – such as asking what’s in your calendar – at which point you’ll be told just how busy you are. Just like Android Wear, you can issue voice instructions that your phone will attempt to respond to and action. We suspect that with the advent of Google Assistant, the voice options will become increasingly sophisticated.
Android Auto: Google Maps Navigation
One of the attractive things for those using Android Auto, is that you can use Google’s navigations and maps. Depending on what car you have and how the options are arranged, there’s the potential to save yourself money, using Android Auto rather than an expensive satnav upgrade from your car manufacturer – certainly something to weigh-up on the options list when buying a new car.
The Google Maps driving experience is very much as you get when you have your Android phone in navigation mode. There are things like traffic, all the information you need, but the real strength is finding locations through search. Although Google’s route planning and guidance isn’t as sophisticated as that of TomTom’s dedicated devices, it is very convenient and in many cases it performs better than some car’s expensive satnav options.
However, for the Audi A3 with the virtual cockpit – offering full widescreen mapping right in front of your eyes – it’s unlikely you’ll better the experience. With the virtual cockpit letting you shrink the dials for a bigger view, and nice clear instructions, Audi’s system is one of our favourites. However, you can’t use both at the same time, it’s either or – and there’s no Android Auto mapping on the driver’s display, only on the central display.
In that sense, Audi’s own system has plenty of appeal particularly for those speccing the virtual cockpit. However, if you’re sticking to traditional dials, then Android Auto’s offering holds more appeal.
One final thing to note is that if you’re navigating on one system and you start planning a route on the other, the existing guidance will stop.
Android Auto: Music
Entertainment is obviously one of the big things that Android Auto offers. Although this isn’t a huge step over using Bluetooth audio – and Audi and others have offered this for years – it does mean that you have a nice clear interface in Android Auto, as well as the choice of the music service you use.
The default or preferred option is Play Music as you’d expect. If you have lots of music in Google’s music service, or a subscription, then you’ll be well served.
But as a Spotify subscriber, we were drawn to support for that service. It works really well, with full playlist support, so you can just fire up Spotify and listen as you would anywhere else. There’s a wide range of supported apps on Google Play, from radio apps to podcasts. Just remember that unless you have something saved locally on your device, you might be using up a lot of data playing all that music as you drive.
Never at any point do you have to touch your phone, as all the volume and track skipping works with the Audi’s existing controls.
Android Auto: Calling
Calling is perhaps the least revolutionary aspect of Android Auto, because it’s so well established through existing Bluetooth connections in cars. If you have nothing in your car, then great, you’re now connected; but with Bluetooth phone connections coming as standard on most new cars, you might find you never need Android Auto’s option.
Except, of course, that everything is displayed in an Androidy way, so it feels closer to your phone than your car’s interpretation of it.
In the Audi A3, calling is well handled by the default systems. Once you’re hooked up to Bluetooth, the car has full access to your contacts and they are accessible from the steering wheel controls, and viewed in the central display. In this case, it’s very easy to scroll to a contact and hit the call button, with very little effort.
Whichever you choose, it works well enough, but we suspect it will be of most interest to upgraders, rather than those with a brand new car.
One of the most attractive things about Android Auto is that it’s run by your phone, not the car. Sure, in this case there’s a lot of integration and cross-over with Audi’s existing offering, but taking the normal environment of your phone – the phone that knows what you’re doing and everything about you – has its advantages. For those who use multiple cars, it’s good to know that your phone is keeping track of everything, so you can plug in and go.
The Audi A3 is a well connected car, offering a wide-range of options and in some cases, Android Auto might seem unnecessary, especially as Audi’s existing offering is very strong. With that in mind, it might have more appeal in cars with weaker systems, or give you the option to save money, by letting Google do the work rather than your car.
As it’s drawing on apps from your phone, you’ll have the latest features, without having to wait for your car to be updated, which is another immediate advantage.
If you’re an Android user, then speccing your car with Android Auto certainly makes sense, with the potential to make your car smarter, more personalised and more familiar, and all with very little effort.