A few months back, my parents bought a 2014 Ford Fusion with a high-tech touchscreen infotainment system in the dash. But it was too complex and time-consuming for them to figure out. So Mom and Dad ignore all that cool stuff and just use the radio and CD player — like Neanderthals.
That’s the exact problem Google is trying to address with its new Android Auto software. Available on the 2015 Hyundai Sonata — and coming to 2016 vehicles from more than 30 other automakers — Android Auto essentially pipes your Android smartphone into your car’s touchscreen. Well, most of it, anyway.
I spent a week driving a Sonata powered by Android Auto, and I can honestly say it was awesome. It made me wish my parents had waited longer to buy a car with Google inside.
Running on Android
To use Android Auto, you’ll need two things: an Android smartphone and a car that runs the Android Auto software. (Sorry, iPhone fans — you’ll have to wait for roadsters that support Apple CarPlay later this year and in 2016.)
Once you install the Android Auto app on your smartphone, you simply connect your phone to your car’s infotainment system via a USB cable and the software will be up and running.
Despite its name, Android Auto is more akin to Google’s card-based Google Now Service than to the version of Android on your phone. The interface is made up of five tabs, one each for home, Google Maps, phone, media, and your car’s native infotainment system. You navigate between each tab via a set of icons at the bottom of the touchscreen.
Connected, and just a teensy bit creepy
My favorite thing about Android Auto is the fact that, because it’s powered by my smartphone, it instantly recognizes everything saved in my Google account.
For instance, I had an editorial meeting scheduled in my Google calendar, and Android Auto automatically notified me about it with a pop-up on the home tab as the meeting’s time approached. It then gave me directions to Yahoo’s New York office and told me it would take 33 minutes to get there.
I totally missed the meeting, by the way, but that’s because I’m terrible at being on time for anything.
Android Auto is also pretty darned smart: It knew when I left work each evening and instantly offered directions for the quickest way home. However, at times it can be a bit too optimistic about how fast traffic moves in Manhattan. It told me it would take 30 minutes to get from Times Square to Astoria, Queens, in rush-hour traffic. That’s a 45-minute drive at best.
The night before attending a cousin’s wedding, I looked up the directions to the church on my PC to see when I needed to leave in the morning. The next day, when I got in my car, Android Auto automatically pulled those search results from Google and offered me directions to the church without my asking for them. Creepy? Maybe — but also extremely convenient.
I’m OK Google, you’re OK Google
Android Auto wants you to keep your eyes on the road and not your car’s display, so it relies heavily on Google’s excellent voice-recognition and search technology. I used its impressive voice controls to do everything from finding a gas station to making calls — it was incredibly easy. I even asked Android Auto to find nearby sushi places. It not only gave me a full list of restaurants, but it served up reviews and phone numbers.
You can also use Google’s voice search to ask questions like, “Was Bryan Cranston ever on Seinfeld?” So you can kiss those annoying road-trip arguments goodbye.
By the way, Cranston was on Seinfeld, in 1994, 1995, and 1997.
I ping, therefore I am
Of course, because Android Auto runs on your smartphone, you can make calls by searching for the number on your car’s touchscreen or saying the name of the person you want it to call. You can also send texts or Google Hangout invitations via voice, though that can quickly get annoying.
I got a bit overwhelmed when talking with people over Hangouts, since every message I received caused a new “ping” noise. After about 10 pings, I had to tell people to stop messaging me.
When you receive a message, Android Auto reads it out loud. (It also reads your messages back to you after you dictate them.) The problem? Android Auto doesn’t recognize conjunctions. Every time I said the word “I’d,” Android Auto would repeat it as “I number thirty-nine d.” Still, it sent the word as “I’d,” which is what ultimately matters.
Google Maps to go
I already use Google Maps on my phone when I drive. But that means cradling my smartphone in my lap and glancing down to see where the next turn is, or asking my girlfriend to serve as my de facto co-pilot, which I’m sure she loves doing on long road trips. Which is why using Maps with Android Auto is so easy, and above all safe.
Directions are laid out just like on a smartphone or tablet. You get a box with turn-by-turn directions, including lane guidance, which takes up about a quarter of the screen. The rest of the screen is filled with a large overhead map with your path highlighted. If you switch to Android Auto’s home or music screen, directions appear as notifications at the top of the display before the next turn.
Tune in, turn on
I can’t drive without listening to Spotify, so I couldn’t be happier with the fact that Android Auto works with not only Google’s Play Music but also Spotify, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, and a half-dozen other audio apps.
You can control music using voice commands or the touchscreen, though I personally found using the touchscreen much faster. Voice recognition worked well when using Google Play Music, pulling up Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” as soon as I asked for it.
I ran into some trouble with Spotify, though. At times, the app wouldn’t play songs I told it to, or even play at all.
HOW CAN ANYONE DRIVE WITHOUT LISTENING TO TAYLOR SWIFT?!
After the app got going, though, it ran smoothly. Naturally, Google Play Music is the default music player, but switching over to Spotify is as easy as saying, “Play Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ with Spotify.”
Hit the road, Jack
So there you have it. Despite a hiccup or two, Android Auto really is the best in-car infotainment system around. Its interface is clean and uncluttered, its voice recognition is top-notch, and the inclusion of Google Maps makes navigating a breeze.
If you’re an iPhone owner who’s jealous, take heart. Tim Cook and company are expected to release CarPlay, Apple’s own iPhone-friendly car interface, in 2015 and 2016 model year vehicles.
As for my Neanderthal parents, they’ve traded in their complicated car for a slightly used woolly mammoth. (Thank you, I’ll be here all week.) Seriously, though, this is the future. In a few years, if you drive a car that doesn’t work seamlessly with your phone, you’re going to feel like a dinosaur.