My distracting, bug-riddled drive with Android Auto

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I’ve been working on my review of Android Auto for the past month, but I’m not ready to publish it yet. I still need to do a little more testing, including spending a weekend with a car that comes with Android Auto installed right off the lot, rather than one with an aftermarket unit installed. I did, however, want to write a bit about my first few road trips with it, because it’s been an interesting learning experience thus far.

We got the software installed in my colleague’s fire red Mitsubishi Outlander via an aftermarket Pioneer receiver: the AVIC-8100NEX. The receiver itself is capable of a plethora of other neat in-car features, but I’ve been primarily testing Android Auto to see what it’s like to use while out on the road.

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The Pioneer head unit that is compatible with Android Auto. 

I live about 35 miles away from the office. It’s a considerable drive, and with Bay Area traffic you want something in the car to keep you company. But you want something that works, and that doesn’t frustrate you to the point that actually using your phone while driving seems like a more feasible option. Unfortunately, that’s been my experience with Android Auto so far.

A consistently inconsistent experience

I don’t yet feel confident enough about Android Auto to suggest that someone go out and pay to have it installed in their car. It took me a while to figure out why things didn’t work well, and I can’t imagine the frustration I would have felt if I had actually paid the money for the upgrade. 

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The Galaxy S6 Edge didn’t always work with Android Auto. 

First off, getting Android Auto started in the car is supposed to be easy. You just plug in your phone, turn on Bluetooth if it’s not already on, and then the app should automatically engage. But it hardly worked that way half the time, and especially not with the Galaxy S6 Edge. Twice I had to turn the car engine off and then on again for the receiver to register the connection. Three times I had to turn Bluetooth off and on. The rest of the time, the receiver would recognize the phone about 30 seconds after the car was all warmed up. My colleagues had the same issues on their initial drive with Android Auto, so they had warned me that I’d have some jiggering to do. 

While the unit worked fine 100 percent of the time with a Nexus 6, Samsung’s Galaxy S6 is a far more popular Android phone, and I can’t imagine having to explain to someone why Android Auto doesn’t work with their very popular, very available brand-new Android device. Apparently, there have been issues with non-stock Android devices—you know, nearly all the Android phones sold. Some last-generation flagships, like the Galaxy S5 and LG G3, don’t work at all.

I also noticed that any time Android Auto would run off of the Verizon variant of the Galaxy S6 Edge, it was buggy and slow. Samsung’s own Car Mode was running simultaneously in the background. I have a theory that this is actually the reason for Android Auto’s poor performance with the Samsung phone plugged in, and I plan to test it out with other non-stock Android phones once I get in another Android Auto-enabled car. 

Voice command is not like K.I.T.T.

Google is really pushing Android’s voice command features; I’ve become accustomed to commanding my phone, my tablet, and my smartwatch. But asking Android Auto to do something is awkward to do in a car full of people, and when it doesn’t work (which is often) it’s actually kind of distracting to your driving. 

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Voice command on Android Auto only worked half the time.

In the aftermarket set up, the receiver you have installed uses an external microphone to listen for your voice commands. Pioneer said that the bundled microphone should be able to understand a command in any situation, regardless of how loud the road is or how noisy your passengers are in the back seat.

Here’s where it all started to fall apart: Android Auto’s voice command feature worked only about half the time, but I couldn’t pinpoint whether the culprit was the car’s microphone, my cellular service, or Google’s servers. In one instance, I asked Android Auto to help me find a gas station because I was in an area that I was unfamiliar with. The voice replied that it was displaying a list of gas stations, but nothing popped up. So, I pulled over in a random sketchy neighborhood, and began manually tapping around Google Maps to find the gas stations category.

What’s the point of having all that capability in the dashboard if I have to pull over to make it work? The whole situation was absurd to me, and I was a little frustrated about the time I had to waste just to get some gas. Eventually, Android Auto found me directions to the nearest Shell, but I could have just as easily found a gas station by voice commanding my phone to find me one. 

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Fortunately, Google Maps has a selection of categories to choose from when Android Auto doesn’t understand what you want from it.

Text messages are weird when you’re driving, too. If the person on the other end doesn’t use punctuation, it’ll sound like one long, run-on sentence. My Dad texted me in Romanian several times and Android Auto read it out loud as gibberish. We were coordinating grocery shopping for Mother’s Day, so I needed to know what he said. I eventually had my fiancé in the passenger seat attempt to read it to me off my phone (Android Auto does not display our texts, for safety), but it would have been nice to have an option that made Android Auto bilingual, especially since the software is launching in non-English speaking markets.

Not enough applications

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m always professing my love for the electronic music radio app Digitally Imported. Unfortunately, it isn’t compatible with Android Auto just yet. Neither is Podkicker Pro. Or SoundCloud. These are all applications I use daily to listen to music and podcasts, and it’s a bummer that so few apps are currently compatible with Android Auto.

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The app offerings for Android Auto are currently pretty limited. 

What’s the point of having Android Auto installed if your most used apps aren’t even available for it? I might as well stick with the $80 Bluetooth dongle setup I have now, even if it does require that I pick up my phone and poke at it while I’m on driving down the highway. Sorry, Officer, I had to use my phone because Android Auto doesn’t support my favorite music app, and you know how much it sucks to drive to music you don’t actually like. 

I can’t wait to see more apps become compatible with Android Auto. I’d love to have either a Yelp or FourSquare app to refer to while parked to find places to eat and then get turn-by-turn directions. It’d also be helpful to have Waze’s real-time, socially-curated traffic information built into Android Auto, without having to rely on Google Maps to aggregate it.

One more test

I think there’s definitely a need for software like Android Auto in the car—something that mimics your phone’s operating system and synchronizes with it perfectly. But there are just too many kinks in Android Auto so far.

There’s still a bit of testing I need to do with Android Auto before I can fully assess it. As I mentioned, my next experiment is to drive in a car with Android Auto already installed fresh off the lot. I’m also curious to pinpoint some of the issues that arose with this particular setup and figure out if they stem from the aftermarket installation or Android Auto itself. You’ll find the results of that in the full-blown review of Android Auto in just a few weeks.

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