Hands-on: Android Auto puts Google's in-dash experience on your phone (and, yes, it works)

Forget about buying a new car or tearing out your car's dashboard. Google has a plan to bring Android Auto's distraction-free driving features directly to your phone.

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Adam Patrick Murray

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Let me be almost recklessly honest: I allow my Android phone to distract me while driving. Sure, I stick to the Google Maps interface when I’m navigating somewhere, and try to avoid skipping through songs as I’m streaming music. But even with this level of quasi-carefulness, I could benefit from Google’s plan to put Android Auto directly on smartphone screens, a new feature that I tested in my own car at Google HQ on Tuesday. 

Android Auto, first announced in 2014, was designed to keep Android users like me from fiddling around with our devices when we should really be paying attention to the road. The headline features include hands-free voice control for playing music, texting, making phone calls, and navigating via Google Maps. Android Auto also features Google Now-style cards that occasionally pop up with calendar reminders and weather forecasts.

The idea is to give you only the most basic, necessary smartphone functionality in a voice-controlled interface, so that you’re not doing stupid things—like angrily firing off Facebook messages—when you should be driving. 

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Android Auto’s phone interface is just as straightforward as the dashboard version.

These are all great features, but to use Android Auto, you’ve had to either buy one of the 100 different car models that offer it, or purchase an aftermarket head unit from a company like Pioneer or Kenwood.

But, thankfully that’s all changing, as Google is working on a standalone version of Android Auto to be released later this year. No longer will you have to trade in your vehicle or tear apart your dashboard just to enjoy the system. But you will need an Android smartphone running Lollipop and up—as well as a little common sense to invest in an effective dashboard mount.

Here’s what I found during my brief time with Android Auto for the phone screen.

My car... made new again

Google let me borrow a Nexus 6P loaded with a beta version of Android Auto for the phone screen. It’s not officially called that—it’s still just “Android Auto”—but Google used that phrasing during my demo, and asked that I make an explicit distinction between Android Auto on phone screens, and Android Auto on dashboard screens. At any rate, we mounted the phone to an air conditioning vent, right underneath the stereo display, and quickly hooked it up to my car’s Bluetooth.

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Like Android Auto in your dashboard, Android Auto on your phone uses easy-to-tap cards. 

The interface for Android Auto for your phone screen is just as pared down and simple as the version of Android Auto that I originally reviewed. It’s a bigger, less busy interface than stock Android, and everything is designed to enhance visibility and minimize distraction.

There’s a back and home button on the bottom of the screen, a button to engage voice control, and a hamburger menu in the upper left-hand corner of the interface. You can tap around to select what you need, or hit the voice command button, and ask Android to do your bidding. Google says it will soon bring hotwording to Android Auto so that you can issue commands with a simple “OK Google” prompt rather than tapping on an icon to get started. 

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Navigation in the Android Auto app launches into an optimized version of Google Maps.

My demo was quick and simple—which is to be expected, as that’s the whole point of Android Auto. I asked Android Auto to play a podcast by name from Pocket Casts, and it immediately started the latest episode. I asked it to navigate to San Francisco International Airport, and it launched Google Maps inside the app. The directions even included the option to find gas stations and coffee shops along the way. I then asked it to call my phone by dictating the actual numbers, and it worked.

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Who needs a standalone Garmin when you’ve got Android Auto and Google Maps on your phone?

So far, so good. But just be aware that like its dashboard counterpart, Android Auto for the phone screen’s voice command feature can be finicky if your cellular reception is spotty. It’s also worth noting that if you’re using a smaller phone—like the 5.1-inch Samsung Galaxy S7—it’s not going to be easy to see album art, or glance at playlists, in Spotify. The Nexus 6P’s 5.7-inch screen size feels just right for this implementation of Android Auto, but drivers with smaller phones could face issues.

Android Auto, now with Waze

One of the best things about Android Auto on your phone screen is that all the applications already supported by the platform will work—this includes Spotify, Pocket Casts, and Waze, for which Google announced compatibility at its I/O keynote. In short, developers won’t have to worry about whether their Android Auto app will format correctly for sundry phone screens. There will also be a landscape mode available at launch.

Google plans to launch the finalized version of Android Auto for your phone screen “later this year.” I personally can’t wait for this new feature and its hands-free, in-car convenience, and I’m pretty sure those driving around me will appreciate it, too.

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