What is Android Auto?

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?

Android Auto takes the features you love about your Android-powered smartphone and puts them directly in your car’s dashboard by overriding the native infotainment system. It displays information on a familiar, easy-to-use interface with cards you can swipe out of the way, legible menus, and large icons. It recently received a darker theme, an updated app launcher layout, and a more intuitive interface, so Android users will find it more familiar than ever.

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’s a real boon if your car doesn’t have navigation built in. The software ports over saved destinations from your phone, so you don’t have to manually type in the address to your house, your office, or your school. Finally, Android Auto gives motorists on-demand access to millions of songs and podcasts via a growing list of third-party apps, lets them surf the web, and allows them to stay connected by making phone calls and sending messages using Hangouts, WhatsApp, and other messaging platforms.

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?” 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, or the rotary dial if your car’s screen isn’t touch-sensitive. 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.

Google Assistant integration leverages intelligent voice controls to help drivers keep their hands on the steering wheel. Fluid, precise two-way conversations are possible with the Assistant’s artificial intelligence-powered technology, and all your favorite apps come along for the ride as well.

Speaking of, Android Auto 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 like Polestar to create new, Android-based infotainment systems where all of these features will be accessible from one place.

Which phones are compatible with Android Auto?

Now that you know what Android Auto is, we’ll address which devices and vehicles are compatible with it. Users whose phone is running Android OS versions 9 or below will need to download the free Android Auto application from the Google Play Store, but phones with Android 10 come with the functionality built in. Any phone running Android 5.0 and up that has an active data plan can power Android Auto, so you don’t need the latest device to use it.

Your phone must have a working USB port to connect to the car, though the newest Android phones from Samsung and others can support wireless Android Auto connections in a small but growing list of vehicles.

Which cars are compatible with Android Auto?

Dozens of new cars 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.

Lexus and its parent company Toyota resisted Android Auto for years due to safety and privacy concerns, but both have changed their minds. Several 2020 models — including the Tacoma, the Sequoia, the Tundra, the 4Runner, and the RX — are Android Auto compatible. We expect the list will continue to grow in the coming months and years. For now, BMW and Porsche are still Android-free, but Porsche told Digital Trends that could soon change.

When the software first became available in 2015, Chevrolet, Kia, and Hyundai became among the first businesses to build Android Auto-compatible cars. Since it took carmakers a significant amount of time to include Google in the cabin, it’s difficult to find a used car compatible with Google.

If those don’t suit your taste, a stereo swap could be the right solution. Aftermarket manufacturers such as Kenwood, Panasonic, Pioneer, and Sony offer Android Auto-compatible head units. Making an upgrade to your stereo system might be a timely change anyway. A new head unit is much cheaper than buying a new (or used) car, too.

Motorists can bypass compatibility issues by downloading Android Auto and using it as a standalone application. First, launch the software and mount your smartphone to your windshield or dashboard. The interface offers the same features, whether it displays on a car’s touchscreen or via a smartphone. This solution allows anyone to use Android Auto in a 2019 BMW 3 Series, a classic Mini, a 1908 Ford Model T, and anything in between. As long as drivers use the tech responsibly, Android Auto’s countless features can make your trip more productive and entertaining. Google Assistant, Google Maps navigation, and hands-free entertainment are just an app away.

Android Auto is the answer that loyal Android and Google fans have been waiting for. The familiar operating system adds the same level of functionality to your car that your smartphone has. The technology is becoming more widely available in more makes and models, even though some carmakers have been slow to include the new technology in their car’s built-in systems.

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