Android Auto began as Google’s answer to Apple’s CarPlay: in-car entertainment software that would play nicely with your phone. It provided seamless access to car-optimized apps like Google Play Music, Maps, Pandora, and useful real-time information like traffic incidents and weather. Since Android Auto’s launch nearly a year ago, though, it has been relegated to expensive new cars. But all that changed on Monday when Google announced a major update for Android Auto, version 2.0, that enables the in-car entertainment system on supported Android devices and tablets.
It is a boon for folks with older rides. Previously, you could only get Android Auto in one of two expensive ways: buying a new car that had it built into the factory stereo, or buying and installing a pricey head unit yourself. “[We] know there are millions of older cars on the road that are not compatible with Android Auto, and many don’t have a screen at all,” Gerhard Schobbe, Android Auto’s project manager, wrote in a blog post. “We wanted to bring the same connected experience to these drivers too.”
The new Android Auto client, which supports phones running Android 5.0 or newer, provides access to much the same interface as the one on high-end head units. It is hardware agnostic, Google said, meaning it will work regardless of whether or not you have a certain car display or mount. It launches automatically when your phone is paired to your car via Bluetooth. It will include enhanced hands-free voice commands, which include improved accessing features in Google Maps, music, and messaging apps, that Google said will launch in the coming weeks.
For the uninitiated, the Android Auto experience centers around the home screen, which shows three cards containing the most relevant bits of information at any given moment. If you receive a phone call or text, you will see the content of the message. If there is a road closure ahead, you will see detour details. And if there is inclement weather projected for your trip, you will receive an alert.
Apps are the other half of Android Auto’s equation and the platform is practically overflowing with them. They are informally divided into categories. Navigation apps include Maps, which provides turn-by-turn directions with distances, ETA to destinations, voice prompts, and pop-up notifications about upcoming lane switches and turns. Among the music apps are Google Play Music, Spotify, iHeart Radio, TuneIn, Joyride, Stitcher, podcast player Pocket Casts, and NPR One, all of which show album artwork and playback controls. Communication apps comprise Android Auto’s built-in messaging client, which let you send texts and initiate calls with voice. Voice apps — principally Google’s autonomous assistant, Google Now — provide navigational assistance, allowing you to launch apps, begin music playlists, pull up directions, get the local temperature, and even learn about the elevation of nearby geographic features all by shouting commands.
Android Auto on any old smartphone or tablet will not necessarily deliver the same experience as an integrated head unit. Hyundai, for instance, recently introduced MyHundai, an Android Auto app that provides access to Hyundai Roadside Assistance, monthly vehicle reports, maintenance alerts, and a Valet mode that notifies you if your car exits a pre-determined boundary. But it provides a pretty good approximation of the experience on head units and new cars. Considering it is free, perhaps that is good enough.
Google said more than 200 new car models from 50 brands now support Android Auto. The most recent to climb aboard include, Kia, which recently added Android Auto as a free software update on cars spanning model years 2014 through 2017, and Hyundai, which rolled out the platform as part of an update for certain models of the carmaker’s Genesis, Elantra GT and Tucson, and Santa Fe.