Skip to main content

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

Android Auto just got its largest redesign since the system’s launch in 2014. Google announced at its I/O developer conference earlier this year (we were there and you can watch our walkthrough in the video above) and the changes are all about tapping the screen in your car less. We sat in a car running the new redesign and 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 via update starting now 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 now comes 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.

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.

Editors' Recommendations

Julian Chokkattu
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Julian is the mobile and wearables editor at Digital Trends, covering smartphones, fitness trackers, smartwatches, and more…
How to use Android Auto
Android Auto update

Google developed Android Auto for motorists who are frustrated with their car's native infotainment system. Like rival software Apple CarPlay, Android Auto gives drivers the option of embedding a familiar, smartphone-like interface into their touchscreen.

Further reading

Read more
How to update Android Auto
how to update android auto unnamed 11

Android Auto puts commonly used smartphone apps and features right in your car's dashboard. It overrides the native infotainment system with a familiar, easy-to-use interface that many motorists prefer. It reduces dangerous distractions, at least according to Google (but not according to AAA), and it makes upgrading an older car with new features a breeze.

Like most things in our digital lives, Android Auto and smartphones in general have to be updated frequently with the latest software, but the update process here is a bit different than you may think. The important thing to remember when thinking about the best way to update Android Auto is that the images and functions you see on the screen in your dash are a direct projection from your smartphone. That means that the version of Android Auto you’re using is a reflection of the version of Android your phone is running. It may not be possible to run the latest version of the software on older phones, but newer versions of the phone software will allow you to see the latest version of Android Auto as well. Here's how to update Android Auto.

Read more
What is Android Auto?
bmw making wireless android auto free in most cars 2020 2

Google's presence in the auto industry isn't limited to developing autonomous technology. Millions of drivers power up its Android Auto software each day, either because they find their car's infotainment system confusing or because they want a more smartphone-like interface.

Like CarPlay, Apple's rival system, Android Auto promises to make driving safer by reducing distractions. Whether it achieves this goal depends on who you ask; AAA found it helps drivers keep both eyes on the road, but a British study concluded that using it is more distracting than driving drunk. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, and common sense goes a long way when using in-car tech. Here's what you need to know about Android Auto.
What does Android Auto do?

Read more