We human-type beings suck at using our mobile devices while driving and we frequently kill and/or dismember ourselves in an attempt to pull off that stupid stunt. To try to keep Android users alive to buy more Android products, Google today unveiled Android Auto. We just got to play with it a bit, and we liked what we saw.
Basically all of the brains for Android Auto come from your Android phone. We assumed it would be Bluetooth—and some day it may be—but today linking your phone to your car's console is accomplished via a USB tether. All of the data that you'll be pulling down will be through your phone. If your car has a GPS antenna, though, you should be able to use that, which may increase accuracy.
Android Auto is currently set to use touchscreen consoles as well as consoles that only get input through joysticks. Our demo was in a touchscreen-capable Chevy. When you're parked you'll have a full keyboard pop up, in case you need to manually enter a destination. Once you're in motion, though, it's almost all voice-controlled, as it should be.
Using the voice button on your car's steering wheel, Android Auto's voice input pops up. You can ask it for directions, ask it to play a song from your phone (or in one of your streaming services, natch), or even ask Google Nowier things like, "When is my next appointment?" or "Will it rain tonight?" Thankfully, rather than filling the screen with eye-tempting text, your answers will be read back to you over your car's stereo system.
Incoming calls are handled similarly. Regardless of what app you're in (Maps, or podcasts, etc) you'll get a little notification on the screen advising you that you've got a call coming in. Give that notification a quick tap, and it answers your phone and connects the call. We would really like to see them make this entirely tap-free. Why not just say, "Brian Barrett is calling you. Would you like to answer?" and then you say yes or no? Seems safer and easier.
Similarly, when you get a text message you get a "heads-up notification" (something debuting in Android's "L" OS update later this year). Tap it, and it will be read out loud to you (no text is displayed). Then if you want to reply you just hit the voice button on your steering wheel, say "Reply" and you're off to the races. Even if it's not perfect yet, it still seems roughy 10 times safer than trying to sneak a peak at your phone.
Maps looked really nice on Android Auto. Basically, it's your standard Google Maps, but larger and easier to control by voice only. It displays your next turn on a card floating over the map (including the lane you need to get into), and provides easy access to alternate routes, as well nearby points-of-interest such as gas stations and restaurants.
Unfortunately, Google Maps still ignores the route you're on, so it just displays gas stations in a nearby radius, rather than giving you gas stations ahead of you on your route, which would be vastly more useful. They've really got to fix this. Google is too good at contextual awareness to have let this slip for this long (it's the same problem on the mobile Maps app). As with Google Maps on your phone, though, locations you've searched for on your desktop will be automatically loaded into your Recent screen, which should eliminate some redundant hunting for an address.
Music is also obviously going to be a big part of Android Auto. At launch it works with apps like Spotify, Pandora, and (of course) Google Play Music. While each of these services is slightly different, what's interesting is that the Android Auto UI for them is extremely similar. This is intentional. They want finding the music you want and playing it take as little focus as possible. You still have access to the unique services in each (playlists, "artist radio," "I'm feeling lucky," etc), but everything is laid out in the same way and very easy to find. Note the similarities between Google Play Music, Spotify, and Pandora above.
What cool is that you don't have to download separate apps for this to make it work with Android Auto in your car. Developers will simply enable Android Auto functionality within the app you already have on your phone, and it will pop up when you connect the phone your car. This also means that you'll just update you apps through the Play Store as you normally do. Very seamless. Of course, not just any app will be approved to work with Android Auto. For example, they won't let YouTube or any other video-playing app play on your console (though perhaps they'll add a "when parked" feature down the line). They're also toying with vehicle stats, though that would be up to individual auto-makers to implement, it sounds like.
All in all, this is a very encouraging start. There was a little bit of lag here and there, but that's going to be dependent on what chipset the individual auto-makers end up putting into their cars. It's already a head and shoulders above what we're currently seeing in modern dashboards, and it's comparable to the new stuff that Apple will be coming out with, except, y'know, it's for Android. Will it work with iOS devices, too? Windows Phone? No word on that yet, but if Android wants a ton of automakers on board, it would make sense to make it as open as possible.
Android Auto definitely isn't perfect yet. We'd like to see more thorough voice commands and a UI that never required you to look at or tap the screen at all, but it's headed in the right direction. So far, we just know that it will be coming stock in cars rolling off the lots later this year from Chevy, Hyundai, Audi, and a couple others, but the door is wide open for after-market manufacturers to make in-dash systems (or tablet-like systems) that you could install on your older car. No hardware partners have been announced on that front, but it will definitely help a system like this spread. Anything that keeps us maintain our connected lives but keep our eyes on the road can't come soon enough.