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Two Weeks with Android Auto

The Beginning

Trust in the Waze

About a year ago I became a dedicated Waze user. I used to go everywhere, including to work each morning, a drive I've done for 6 years now. Margaret used to give me grief about needing GPS to get to work, but it wasn't really the directions I needed. Waze constantly looked at all the routes home and their current traffic conditions and told you the fastest way to get there. This is invaluable for a daily commuter, as Waze will route you around random slowdowns, huge accidents on 101 that you didn't know about, etc.

After a few weeks it quickly became apparent that glancing down at the seat next to me to see what Waze was telling me was going to end badly, so I shopped around and found the mount pictures below to hold me phone.

My Dashboard

It worked really really well. It held my phone in place and I could see what Waze was telling me. In addition to just Waze, I have a bluetooth device that plugs into my cars CAN network and is able to report sensor data. Install Torque, and you have a fancy new extended dashboard. Bundle in a dashboard app to hold your widgets, some Tasker automation, and you've really got something.

The downside with my homegrown setup is that I outgrew it and got tired of maintaining it. Especially since I still spent most of my time in Waze, so all those nice other widets weren't getting used.

Enter Android Auto

I decided to try Android Auto, Google's foray into the car. This didn't work with my factory headunit, so I had to buy (and have installed) a Pioneer AVH-4100NEX. This unit is awesome even without Android Auto, and the way things got installed I could actually replace Android Auto with my homegrown setup again via MirrorLink.

Android Auto

What Does it Do?

In short, it brings Google to your car. Of course you can do simple things that you would expect, like use Google Maps for navigation or listen to music via Google Play Music. But there are two areas where it really shines.

Google Now

Andoid Auto leverages the same technology that brings you the really useful before you knew you needed it Now Cars to your dashboard. When the system starts up, you're presented with a list of cards depending on what your recent actions have been. Searched for an address on your phone recently? You'll see a card with travel time to it and a button to hit to start nav. If you've made or received any calls recenlty, you'll get a contact card for the person, in case you want to call them back.

As things stand now, the cards are really rather limited, basically the minimum they could be to be useful. I expect over time Google will make them more and more useful, especiallly once we start seeing some 3rd party cards show up on the dash.

Voice Command

Ok Google

Hit the button on your steering wheel control and you get that familiar Google Now beep.

Navigate home

And you're on your way home.

Listen to 90s Frat Barbecue Radio

Now you've got some tunes.

Send a message to Margaret

And you can dictate a text message without removing your hands from the wheel. And if you get a text message, a toast pops up on the screen that you can hit and Android Auto will read it to you.

How Does it Work?

Google realized something very early on: The car companies move slow. Like really really slow. Some quick Googling indicates that you could easily get an Audio CD player in 1982. It took until 1987 before Ford offered the first OEM CD player in a car. How can you deal with an industry that iterates this slow?

The problem was solved by making the headunit in the car dumb. When you plug your phone in, the USB cable is used to project images/video generated on the phone. In addition, after the original set of features landed in Lollipop (5.0), the rest of the changes could be rolled out via individual app updates via the Play Store. This is a really elegant solution to an ugly problem.

What's bad about it?

My biggest complaint would probably be having to physically plug the phone in every time I get in the car. But it's no worse than my homegrown system, since I needed to plug the phone in to get power. So while annoying, not a show stopper.

Next in line would be the limited (maybe 10?) apps in the ecosystem that work with Android Auto Much like Android TV, it's been hard to get people to develop for it because it has such a small install base (And I think most of them work for Google). But I'll be cautiously optimistic that it will start to take off like Android Wear is now once more Android Auto supported cars are on the road.

The ecosystem problem boils down to a Chicken-and-Egg problem. You don't have any cool apps because you don't have that may units being sold. You don't have very many units being sold because you have no cool apps.

Should I Get It?

Ultimately, the answer boils down to "not yet". For people not buying new cars, it's just not yet a compelling enough system to shell out for the new headunit and install, unless you were looking to do that anyway (maybe your factory one is broken or lacks bluetooth).

And if you're in the market for a new car, the answer above still applies. There are so many other criteria that you should be looking at when buying a car other than if it supports Android Auto. Especially since Android Auto is only available in an OEM system in a very limited number of cars.

But...

It will get better over time, hence the "not yet" above. Here's some reasons why:

  • Due to a smartly designed architechture, the Android team can quickly iterate and push out new features.
  • More and more OEM units will support Android Auto, obviating the need for an aftermarket headunit.
  • More apps will come.
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Bill Napier

Bill Napier

Technologist, Gadget Lover, Father. Doing full time work at Google and part time work on everything else.