Drive smarter and safer with these Android Auto tips

Google's smart car dashboard is right there on your phone, so it's time to put it to use for smarter traveling through town or the open road.

android auto phone
Derek Walter

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Most of the infotainment systems that come with cars are terrible. Voice recognition feels like it’s from the 1980s, and the navigation scheme would fail most usability tests.

Android Auto was supposed to fix that. Problem is, automakers have been driving in the slow lane when it comes to actually building it into their cars. So Google opted to take matters into its own hands and update Android Auto to operate in a standalone mode that lets you run it on your phone.

Android Auto is quite good, and genuinely improves the in-car experience. If you’re tired of having a dumb car, or just frustrated that your smart vehicle isn’t that brainy, here’s why you should get revved up with Android Auto.

Stay focused

If nothing else, Android Auto does one thing well—reduce potential distractions from using your smartphone while driving. It’s not a light matter, as it’s often way too tempting to glance at your phone or watch to see just who texted you.

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The Android Auto home screen is inspired by Google Now with a stream of cards that feature large fonts for an easy glance.

The first key to reducing phone distractions is the interface. The Android Auto home screen features Google Now-like cards with the weather and suggested navigation options based on your account information. If you touch one of the destinations it’ll launch navigation to that destination. Or you can swipe it away if it’s no longer relevant. You have to re-tool your thinking slightly from the way stock Android works, but it’s easy to do after a little time with the app.

Where Android Auto is most in handy is dealing with messages. When you receive one, Android Auto will read it aloud. It’ll then offer to let you dictate a reply. All of these steps can be handled without actually touching the phone, which is kind of the whole idea behind an infotainment system.

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Android Auto will read aloud text messages and let you reply via voice.

I’ve found, however, that the cognitive process involved in dictating a response, including pronouncing all those period and commas, can be just demanding enough to be a distraction all to itself. It’s not enough to keep your eyes on the road, your mind needs to be focused also.

That’s why you may just want to use the “I”m driving right now” option.

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Put off those messages until you’re finished with your journey.

When you touch this, Android Auto will send that message to the person who texted you. It’s a quick tap and you’re done.

Making calls is similarly easy, and can be done with an “OK Google” voice command. Just say the contact or the phone number and it’ll launch the call.

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The phone call interface also has big buttons so you can quickly touch the one you need.

Getting used to saying all of these commands may take time, but Google does this much better than most other options (ahem, Ford Sync).

Navigate smarter

Android Auto is also at its best giving you real-time take on traffic. When you touch the navigation button you’ll be taken into that a traffic mode that highlights slow traffic with those familiar red lines.

The most useful tool here is launching navigation with voice. Through an “OK Google” command you can name a place and then get turn-by-turn directions for getting there.

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Say a destination and Android Auto will tell you how to get there.

However, Google Maps is woefully behind in this functionality compared to Waze. It’s become my go-to traffic navigation tool, and it handily beats Maps with real-time reports and a better driving interface. The good news is that Waze integration for Android Auto is in beta testing right now.

Rock out

Music is always a core part of the in-car experience. Streaming services like Spotify and Google Play Music far surpass radio, and Android Auto delivers in a big way.

To select your music player, touch and hold the headphones icon. You’ll then see this screen.

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The listening selection for Android Auto is a bit limited at this time.

It’d be great if more providers get on board, but this is what you have to work with for now. However, this makes for an excellent way to enjoy your music subscription or listen to the latest Giants game.

The listening experience is pretty good. You can give songs a “thumbs up” as you would in the traditional app format.

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The music interface is made for a quick glance while driving.

Additionally, both Spotify and Google Play Music give you access to music collections for the road.

The smartest innovation is the use of voice commands, so that way you can pause or skip a song without needing to touch the screen. If there’s a command you want to do by voice but it’s not there yet (like favoriting a song), try it again in a few weeks—I’ve found new features pop up all the time.

A few tweaks

There are a few settings you’ll want to customize to your liking. If you have an existing infotainment system (like Ford’s Sync) Android Auto will tap into the speaker system so that your voice commands and replies will be heard through the vehicle’s hardware. 

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If you enable auto launch, Android Auto will connect automatically when you turn on the car.

You can also tell your phone to launch Android Auto immediately when it connects via Bluetooth to your vehicle. That way all you have to do is start the car, dock your phone, and go.

Get the right gear

Now you have to figure out how to keep your phone safely atop your dashboard. There are better options than Duct tape for keeping your phone firmly latched to your dash.

I’m a fan of the Belkin Car Vent Mount ($22 on Amazon). There are plenty of cheap options that will hold your phone up so it’s always in plain view while driving.

Android Auto desperately needs Waze, and more apps ought to get on board. But I really like what I’ve experienced, and I highly recommend it if you want a smarter way to drive. 

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