Story by Marc Rutten - Ex automotive journalist and business manager of Shmee150
For those of you who aren't familiar with Android Auto, the new functionality which has been rolled out across many cars now is a fantastic way to get important content from your phone onto your car dash. It's not without problems though, as I will elaborate on in my story below.
Before we look into what is on offer, let's ask ourselves the question; What is Android Auto? Essentially, the technology at hand makes driving safer by minimizing distractions and drivers checking out their phones while driving, at least that is what Google states. Similarly to what Apple offers in the form of CarPlay, the piece of software was developed to encourage motorists to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the steering wheel. There are two "options"; the interface is either displayed on your phone or it is displayed in the infotainment unit of your car (both are shown below).
The test car on hand to run us through the Android Auto functionality was a current generation Audi TT-RS, which is powered by a 5-cylinder 400hp engine connected to an automatic gearbox and a haldex Quattro four-wheel drive system. The TT has Audi's signature "virtual cockpit", which features a 12.3 inch TFT-LCD that integrates the driver's telemetry and the car's infotainment system into one single unit. Audi's virtual cockpit has three modes: a "driving mode," a "navigation mode" and a "media mode." The Android Auto mode is added to this as a fourth mode.
Android Auto pops up as an option in the infotainment system as soon as the phone is connected via USB or wireless.
The key to using Android Auto is your smartphone, which needs to an Android operating system upgraded to Lollipop or above, which if you do, you will be able to use the streamlined user interface and collection of compatible apps. After you have installed the application, which is available as a free download from the Google Play store, make sure to connect your phone to the infotainment of your car. In my case I used a cable to connect both, but there is a WiFi wireless option available as well.
As soon as the connection is made and the right option is selected from the menu of the on-board infotainment. You will notice that the displays change on both devices, the smartphone’s screen will be locked when Android Auto is active, and you are greeted with a brand new interface allowing you to check the weather, open messages, navigate and play music. You also have access to apps like Google Play Music, Amazon Music, Skype, Waze, Google Maps, Spotify, Whatsapp and more via the infotainment system. You can also see the battery, network status and notifications of your phone.
The controls of the Android Auto interface are mainly based around the controls of the car's infotainment system or voice control. Almost all features can be controlled via the Google Assistant voice command functionality. With these voice commands, you can reply to messages using the speech-to-text technology. This might sound like a wonderful feature offering a great hand-on-the-steering-wheel ability to reply to your messages, but we never got it to work decently and begged for a voice note recording capability. This is something which is completely absent and highly required in the world of Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger communication. With text messages being written out for you, voice notes aren't played back by the system, instead the system reads out loud you have received a voice note.
Voice calls via Whatsapp, Skype or a normal cellular network are working fine, especially in connection to your navigation which runs in the background. Same goes for the music playback via one of the many services currently supported and available. Also, because the system uses Google’s own data, it’s great at giving you access to your recent browsing and search history in your navigation systems - so it’s possible to look for a future destination at your office desk or home laptop, jump into the car, hook up your phone and find it suggested as a possible route to you without even asking for it.
After the first few hours of driving with the system, my initial feeling of Android Auto was one of it being super cool and miles ahead of every car manufacturer's built-in dash interface, but not overly intuitive in its controls and coming with a number of quirks and pitfalls that annoyed me considerably as an advanced user.
The most noticeable irritation is the sheer level of lock down when your phone is connected to Android Auto. Even at standstill (parked or waiting for a traffic light) you are unable to take your phone, open the menu, select specific applications that are not supported to Android Auto and enter data, reply to messages or read an email. The interesting bit is even that if you have a physical home button on your phone or Samsung's Smart Select Edge app bypassing the black Android Auto lock-screen is extremely easy. If you don't have these options, you can only disconnect and reconnect your phone, which isn't the most favorable thing to do.
Secondly, there is the Android Auto interface itself which does not allow for unlimited scrolling, which isn't handy at all. Especially because Audi's on-board options to scroll fast are really easy. Yes, sometimes scrolling is easier and faster than typing in the name of a contact in your phone book or finding a song in your music collection. Of course, voice command exists, but it isn't fail safe!
My final point of frustration has to do with the fact that volume level of the media playback is not connected between the car's infotainment system and Android Auto, and you often end up with a volume level which is either way too low or too high when you switch between a FM or DAB radio station to your favorite playlist in Spotify. Same happens when you disconnect your phone and the on-board system switches to another media source such as the radio or music stored on an on-board hard drive. This kind of annoyance is something that needs to be fixed in future versions of Android Auto, and I hope it will.
All in all, looking back at my initial experience with Android Auto, all I can say is that it is a wonderful addition to any in-car entertainment system. In many cases it is a massive step above the standard offering and brings you voice control, Google Maps, and lots of other apps to your car, making it a better choice than most built-in infotainment systems. The little quirks and frustrations are points to be improved in the future, but it will not stop me from using the system available in many cars on the road today.
For those of you, who would like to use Android Auto. Make sure to visit the Android Auto website, check if your car's built-in infotainment system and smartphone are supported, and start using it. You will definitely love it and after a few days of using the interface, there will not be a reason to move back to the car's interface other than to change a setting, a driving mode, tune in to a radio station or check the car's fuel economy.