Hands on with Android Auto, the mind-melding of phone to car

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Florence Ion

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Before I could afford a car—actually, even now that I own one—I used to think that people with onboard navigation systems were pretty swank. "Look at that fancy built-in screen," I'd think to myself. "They get driving directions and everything."

But I sure showed them when I got my first Android phone. Those swanky drivers had to drop a few grand to get the functionality built into their dashboards, but my phone had turn-by-turn directions right out of the box.

Of course, this was back when holding your phone in your hand wasn't illegal (it's now a finable offense in the state of California). Now, car makers are adopting Google's Android Auto to enable smartphone-like capabilities—done more safely—in both low- and high-end car models. 

High tech in low-end vehicles

androidauto honda Florence Ion

Good old reliable Honda—with Android inside.

Just to clarify, Android Auto is not an embedded system—not like Audi's MMI, Ford's SYNC, or other infotainment platforms built into the cars. Android Auto is an interface you can use with the car's infotainment system, customized for use with Android phones—just as Apple CarPlay will do for iPhones, and MirrorLink already does for multiple phone platforms. All you need is the phone and the proper hookup.

You do have to tether your phone to the car's infotainment system to use the display and audio features, but Android Auto itself relies completely upon your Android device. "This type of solution—your phone brought into the car and connected with the car—that's the feature [people] are craving," said Naoki "Nick" Sugimoto, Senior Program Director at the Honda Silicon Valley Lab. 

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The familiar Google Maps screen, which works exactly as it does on the 5-inch screen on your smartphone.

The new Honda Civics are sportier-looking than they were a decade ago, but by default they're pretty barren on the inside. Honda knows its customers are hoping for more. "Most of our customers are either Android or iPhone users," admitted Sugimoto. "They're attached to [their phones] 24/7…why shouldn't the experience be expanded into the car, rather than totally isolated?"

Honda showed off a prototype of Android Auto running on a capacitive touchscreen display inside a brand-new Civic. The interface looks exactly like Android on your smartphone, and it works similarly, too. You can use Google Now to command it to send a message, get directions to your favorite restaurant, or look for an alternate route while you're stuck in traffic.

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Android Auto already has a plethora of music and radio apps available for your car—and you don't have to control them from your phone.

Any app that utilizes one of Android Auto's APIs can be controlled through the car. If an app doesn't work in your car, it won't be available. The most typical control methods are a touchscreen display or voice command—though in Audi's case, you'd use the rotary control of its MMI system. Honda showed me a demo of the MLB At Bat app, streaming a game through the Civic's speakers.  

The whole point of Android Auto is that it's supposed to be hands-free, but I don't trust Android Auto to eliminate distracted driving completely. There was an instance during the demo when the voice command wouldn't work. I can see the risks of trying to figure out what's going wrong while driving at 65 miles per hour.

Coming soon

Honda couldn't confirm whether the Civic would be the model that comes standard with Android Auto, but it does plan to have Android Auto compatibility in its cars by next year. Sugimoto also wouldn't comment on whether it will be an extra paid feature, or whether it will come standard with its low-end models, such as the Civic and the Fit.

Other car manufacturers that plan to be compatible with Android Auto include Audi, Hyundai, and Chevrolet. 

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