What is Android Auto?
Android Auto… it’s Google’s alternative to Apple CarPlay. But what is Android Auto?
AS WE’VE ALREADY discussed in our guide to Apple CarPlay, if you’re in the market for a new car, you’ve no doubt heard the term Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. But just what is Android Auto, what does it do, and does it really matter if a car has it, or not?
Android Auto is, much like CarPlay, a better way to integrate a phone’s functions into in-car infotainment systems. If you’ve got Bluetooth now, you’ll probably enjoy its call and music functions, along with a few other things it can do. Well, Android Auto does more.
Android Auto is essentially a ‘light’ version of your mobile phone and its apps that’s accessible via the infotainment touchscreen. You can do things like use Google Maps, stream Spotify and Google Music and, of course, the usual stuff like scroll the phone book, make calls and send text messages with Google’s own voice dictation.
Increasingly, Android Auto is seen alongside Apple CarPlay, so if it has one it probably has the other. If you have an Apple iPhone, Android Auto won’t work for you, and vice versa. For manufacturers, integrating these two system saves them money not having to develop and maintain their own maps and software. For the most part, it’s a win for both consumers and manufacturers, but not all car companies are happy about having to incorporate it. And some other company’s only offer one or the other.
BMW, for instance, has only just incorporated Apple CarPlay in its new 5-series, but will not implement Android Auto. So, when shopping, and if it’s important to you, ask if the car has either or both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
How do I connect it up?
Android Auto requires an Android mobile phone running Android 5.0 or later, a compatible car and USB cable. It can also work with either an aftermarket headunit or using the Android Auto app alone – known as car mode.
Car mode is a recent addition to the Android Auto app, and we’ll review how it works during out time testing it in a separate article. For now, we’ll cover how Android Auto works when connected to an Android Auto compatible system.
Android Auto requires a USB cable to make its connection with the infotainment, and the Android Auto app must be installed on your Android phone. The phone doesn’t have to be made by Google – it just needs to be running Android 5.0 or higher.
Android Auto can only run through compatible USB ports. All USB ports in Audis are usually compatible, but the new Civic, for instance, can only do this over the USB port hidden under the centre console.
Once the cable has been connected the phone will prompt the user to agree to Google’s terms, including sending data over the mobile network. Once agreed to, the phone will go into Android Auto mode. In this mode the screen cannot be used, essentially locking you out while it’s connected to the car.
Android Auto functions via either touching the relevant navigation buttons on the infotainment or using voice control. Unlike Apple CarPlay, which requires Siri be activated, Google will automatically turn on its voice recognition software when connected.
Using Android Auto
The homescreen for Android Auto displays a set of cards, similar to the Google Now app, rather than a row of apps, like Apple CarPlay. If you’re a user of Google apps then you’ll have things displayed such as how long it will take to get to work/home, suggested quicker routes if there’s traffic, last song/playlist played and messages with a quick reply option.
When using Android Auto, some of the default infotainment software won’t work, such as navigation. For instance, when in Android Auto, the system will be using Google Maps (or any alternative, compatible Android navigation app), and it will also use mobile data for this. But some functions will still work, such as DAB radio when using Google maps with voice guidance. Of course, Android Auto can be exited at any time to access the default infotainment screen.
Depending on how the vehicle infotainment is controlled, Android Auto can be operated using either touchscreen input, rotary dial and buttons or voice command. Google prefers you use the later, and to help enforce that there’s a limit to how many times you can navigate apps like Pandora or Spotify using touchscreen input; after three pages it will stop, and so voice command must be used.
So, saying something like, “Google, play a song by The Clash”, will open your default music app and play songs by The Clash. Similarly, saying, “navigate to Hobart”, will commence Google Map navigation to Hobart.
What else does it do?
Because Android Auto uses Google Now voice recognition, its commands are similar. Here are some useful ones when driving:
- Send message…
- Find the closest petrol station…
- What’s the weather like…
- Play song, artist or genre…
- Navigate to favourite restaurant…
- Is favourite restaurant open now?
There’s also a reasonable amount of compatible apps available, and you can even video call with Skype. Here’s a list of some of the best apps:
- Google Hangouts
- BBC Media Player
Do I need a mobile network connection?
You don’t need a mobile network connection to use Android Auto but most of the apps won’t run properly without one – except for listening to music stored on the device.
Can I still use my phone?
Google has designed Android Auto so it locks the phone screen when activated. There’s no way to use both at the same time.
Will my phone charge when connected to Android Auto?
Yes, devices will still charge when connected to Android Auto, but it may be at a slower rate.
What if I have an Apple iPhone?
You can’t use Android Auto, but you can use Apple CarPlay if the car has it. Check out our guide for Apple CarPlay here.
Can I use Android Auto on aftermarket stereos or install the software myself?
Some aftermarket headunits have Android Auto, but the USB connection needs to go directly into the headunit and it won’t integrate with the car’s buttons.
Can I use my phone or a tablet screen as an Android Auto interface?
Yes, Android Auto can also run as a standalone interface. When activated in the Android Auto app, the phone screen will operate similar to the Android Auto display in new cars. The phone will need to be mounted to a cradle in the car, however, as it is illegal touch an unsecured mobile device when driving.
What other cool apps are there?
Android Auto’s core functionality is integrating calls, messages, navigation and music. There’s not much to do outside of this. You can’t do things like watch videos or browse the internet.
Supported devices and cars:
Android phones with operating system 5.0 higher, and with Android Auto app installed. For compatible cars, check the official updated list here.