What is Android Auto?

What is Android Auto? Pull over and we'll tell you everything you need to know

Android Auto
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

Google, Apple, and car companies are currently in a relentless three-way tug-of-war for control of your dashboard. Automakers generally prefer motorists use their car’s native infotainment software, but rivaling tech giants offer alternatives that are sometimes better packaged and more intuitive. Google’s proprietary projection standard is called Android Auto.

What is Android Auto, though? Essentially, the tech makes driving safer by minimizing distractions, at least according to Google and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Like Apple CarPlay, it was developed to encourage motorists to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the steering wheel. Ready to give it a shot? Here’s everything you need to know about it.

What does Android Auto do?

Android Auto takes the features you love about your Android-powered smartphone and puts them directly in your car’s dashboard. Nifty, huh? It displays information on a familiar, easy-to-use interface with cards you can swipe out of the way, legible menus, and large icons.

One of the best parts of Android Auto is the Google Maps-powered navigation system, which provides step-by-step directions and automatically finds an alternate route if it detects heavy traffic. It also ports over saved destinations from your phone, so you don’t have to manually type in the address for “Home,” “Work,” or your favorite watering hole. The software also gives motorists on-demand access to millions of songs and podcasts, lets them surf the web, and allows them to stay connected via phone calls and messages.

All of the aforementioned features respond to basic voice commands, too. You can say “OK, Google, play The Offspring,” or “OK, Google, what’s the capital of Australia?” Heck, you can even ask, “OK, Google, what is Android Auto?” With voice commands, you can reply to messages using speech-to-text technology. Don’t worry if your car isn’t equipped with voice-recognition technology, though, as Android Auto’s features are accessible using the touchscreen in your car. Just keep in mind that your smartphone’s screen will be locked when Android Auto is active, though you can swipe to unlock it when it’s safe to do so.

Android Auto also works with a host of third-party apps, including Waze, Pandora, iHeart Radio, Skype, WhatsApp, and Spotify. However, vehicle settings aren’t part of Android Auto, so the driver has to exit the application to adjust climate controls, browse radio stations, or select a different driving mode. That said, Google is currently working with carmakers to create new, Android-based infotainment systems where all of these features will be accessible from one place.

New for 2018 is the addition of Google Assistant into Android Auto. Announced at CES 2018, the change helps drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road through intelligent voice controls. Fluid, precise two-way conversations will be possible with the Assistant’s artificial intelligence onboard, and all your favorite apps will come along for the ride as well. In the U.S., Google Assistant comes to Android Auto this week.

Which phones are compatible with Android Auto?

Now that you know what is Android Auto is, we’ll address which devices and vehicles can use Google’s software. Android Auto works with all Android-powered phones that run 5.0 (Lollipop) or higher. In order to use it, you’ll need to download the free Android Auto app and connect your phone to your car using a USB cable. Google enabled wireless Android Auto in 2018 but it’s only compatible with Pixel, Pixel XL, Pixel 2, Pixel 2 XL, Nexus 5X, or Nexus 6P devices running Android Oreo or higher. You’ll need a Wi-Fi connection, too.

Which cars are compatible with Android Auto?

There are dozens of new cars that are compatible with Android Auto. Keep in mind, however, that some manufacturers charge buyers extra for the feature, and others choose not to offer it on cheaper trim levels.

Android Auto-compatible cars include most members of the Mercedes-Benz lineup, every nameplate in the Cadillac portfolio, plus numerous Chevrolet, Kia, Honda, Volvo, and Volkswagen models. Finding an Android Auto-compatible car shouldn’t be an issue, regardless of whether you’re shopping for a cheap hatchback, a rugged SUV, or a high-end sports car. The full list can be found on Android Auto’s website.

Android Auto
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

The exception to the rule is Toyota, which continues to resist Android Auto — and, to an extent, Apple CarPlay — due to safety and privacy concerns. As an alternative, the Japanese automaker gets its infotainment system from a small, California-based company named Telenav. Executives will supposedly reconsider the controversial decision once they have a better idea of how Android Auto protects customer data, and whether it truly helps drivers stay focused on the road ahead. BMW and Porsche don’t offer Android Auto for similar reasons.

Finding a used car that’s compatible with Android Auto can be a bit difficult because it took carmakers a while to let Google into the cabin. Hyundai, Kia, and Chevrolet were among the first companies to build Android Auto-compatible cars after the software became available in early 2015. If those don’t suit your taste, aftermarket manufacturers such as Kenwood, Panasonic, Pioneer, and Sony offer Android Auto-compatible head units.

Motorists can bypass compatibility issues by downloading Android Auto and using it as a standalone application. Simply launch the software and mount your smartphone to your windshield or dashboard. It offers the same features regardless of whether it’s displayed on a car’s touchscreen or on a smartphone. This solution allows anyone to use Android Auto in a 2018 BMW 3 Series, a 1908 Ford model T, or anything in between.

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