Hands on with Android Auto’s redesign and Assistant’s driver mode

Android Auto is getting a redesign, which Google announced at its I/O 2019 developer conference, and the changes are all about tapping the screen in your car less. I sat in a car running the new redesign, which arrives sometime this summer, and I also got a glimpse at other new Google features to improve the driving experience, such as remote vehicle controls and Google Assistant’s very own Driving Mode. Here’s what they’re all like.

The Android Auto redesign

After driving around the past few days with a car that used Apple’s CarPlay, the new Android Auto is a godsend. The most noticeable change is the darker theme — something Google added in its upcoming version of Android as well. It’s meant to match the car’s interiors, and the subdued colors are less distracting. It looks great, but you may need to wait some time for all app developers to add support for their respective apps.

The new interface also now starts in your favorite navigation app as you start the car, be it Maps or Waze, and it even will resume playing the last music track you were listening to — almost like having the radio go on when you start a car. Maps will suggest locations to navigate to, which means there’s a good chance you may not need to type in directions or use voice at all. There’s also now a widget at the bottom to control media, so you never have to really leave the Maps app when navigating.

The redesign is a good step forward in making important functions of the screen easier to access with fewer taps.

Even better, if you do need to switch to your music app, it’s very easy to do via the icon on the bottom left, and the buttons are large enough to comfortably press without accidentally tapping something else. There’s also now an app launcher as well that resembles the app drawer on Android phones. At the very top are recently used apps in certain categories, such as music, navigation, and communications.

In the app launcher, there are a handful of apps you’ll see with the Assistant icon next to them, like the calendar, weather, and reminders icons. These are services you can tap on to have Assistant quickly read out things like the weather, or have the Assistant swiftly create a reminder or calendar event. Google said it’s hoping to make these more customizable and add more in the future.

A new notification center is present, also akin to Android phones. Tap it and you can see a list of notifications, and have Google Assistant read the alerts out, or you can tap preview to see them yourself. It’s also just as easy to respond via voice.

The redesign is a good step forward in making important functions of the screen easier to access with fewer taps. It will roll out this summer across all cars that support Android Auto, and it will also be compatible with wider screens in cars.

The list of automakers that offer Android Auto continues to grow. Toyota resisted the software for years, but it’s finally beginning to offer it in some of its models, including the 2020 Tacoma. And, Porsche told Digital Trends that it’s open to the idea of letting Google into its dashboards in the not-too-distant future.

Assistant’s Driving Mode

If your car doesn’t support Android Auto, you’ll likely just use your phone, and Google Assistant will soon come with a mode equipped for drivers.

It’s largely a personalized dashboard with all sorts of recommendations as you drive, such as calendar events, quick actions to navigate to work and return a call. There are also media recommendations based on what you were last playing, whether it was on your phone or through a Google Home at home.

Assistant will read out notifications, and as usual, it’s controllable by voice. While navigating, you can just swipe up from the bottom to pull up media controls. And if you go back to the dashboard, the directions will get stickied at the top of the screen so you never miss a turn.

The new Assistant Driving Mode is the future of Android Auto on a phone, and while Google didn’t say it explicitly, that likely means the existing Android Auto app may eventually be phased out. Assistant’s Driving Mode will arrive in the next few months.

Remote vehicle controls

Remote vehicle controls are a new feature limited to cars that work with Hyundai’s Blue Link and Mercedes-Benz’s Mercedes me Connect. If you have one of these supported vehicles, you’ll be able to hook Assistant up to the car, and begin controlling certain functions before you even leave the house — through Assistant on the phone or a Google Home speaker.

You can unlock the doors, have the temperature start running, and even check how many more miles the car can take you before you need to refuel.

At Google I/O, we also saw Android Automotive powering a car, though this technology seemed a little further away from the rest you see here. The remote control functions, along with the Assistant Driving Mode and the Android Auto redesign, are all arriving sometime in the next few months.

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