Google is ready to integrate your car with your phone, and we’ve barely had time to ask “Are we there yet?” At the Google I/O keynote on Wednesday morning, director of engineering Patrick Brady announced Android Auto, the company’s new technology to bring much of what you keep on your phone—your calendar, your music, and your contacts—to the car’s dashboard, in a way that you can use safely while driving.
“In many ways, our cars keep us connected to the physical world around us,” Brady said, “but they remain disconnected from our other devices, and our digital lives.” Just as Apple’s CarPlay is about to change that for iPhones and cars, and MirrorLink is already doing for Volkswagen and other major automakers, Android Auto will deliver the same for the huge installed base of Android phone users.
A smiling Google engineer named Andy Brenner demonstrated Android Auto in a demo cockpit onstage. He connected his Android phone to the car via a cable, triggering a new image in the car’s central display showing navigation and music data from the phone.
“It looks and feels like it’s part of the car, but all of the apps we see here are running on Andy’s phone,” Brady explained. With Android Auto, the driver uses the car’s controls to use the apps. When the apps update, the experience in the car updates as well.
The Android Auto display won’t look exactly like what you have on your phone, but it’ll be similar enough that you can adapt to it quickly when you’re driving. In a demo of Google Play Music, onscreen controls appeared as large icons, designed to be easy to hit even when you’re focusing on the road. “It’s been adapted to have simple, glanceable controls for the car,” Brady explained.
Voice control is even safer than large buttons, though, and that will be another big part of Android Auto. In a navigation demo, Brenner started with a voice query to Google Now about the opening hours of the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Android Auto answered that question, and then Brenner requested route guidance, all without touching the screen.
Android Auto will also feature voice-enabled messaging—the biggest danger from phone-clutching drivers. In the demo, Android Auto read incoming messages aloud. Android Auto also interpreted Brenner’s spoken reply and read it back for confirmation before sending.
Android Auto’s coming soon: More than 40 new partners have joined the Open Automotive Alliance that Google announced at CES earlier this year, according to Brady. More than 25 car brands have signed up to include Android Auto in the near future, Brady added, and the first cars compatible with Android Auto are due out before the end of the year.
Android Auto is now neck-and-neck with Apple CarPlay to appear in cars this year, but it’s a battle where everyone wins. Major car manufacturers have struggled for years to make safe, easy-to-use infotainment systems, with highly mixed results. Google, Apple and MirrorLink are coming at it from the other direction, bringing interfaces similar to what people already use on their phones to the car with much less muss and fuss.
As for the many poor schmucks with older cars, there's hope. Aftermarket manufacturers like Pioneer and Alpine have already jumped on the Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink wagons, and they'll surely join the Android Auto parade as well. The more, the merrier—and the safer.