Android Auto aims to help us drive more safely

Google's new system proved easy to use during an in-car demo

Published: June 26, 2014 04:30 PM

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To hear Google tell it, the battle to keep people away from their phones while driving is lost. So the company is taking a carrot-instead-of-stick approach, by attempting to make it safer to use your phone in the car.  

I got a first-hand demo of its new system, Android Auto, at Google I/O, the company’s developer conference. So far, at least, it looks easy to use and useful. As more developers add apps, it should get even better.

Android Auto uses your smart phone as its base. Plug it into your car, and everything shows up on a dashboard navigation screen. You operate it via a touch interface on that screen, controls on your steering wheel, or voice. The steering-wheel controls are much the same as those currently in use. With voice, you can do anything in Android Auto that you can do on your phone. You can also have text messages read aloud.

Android Auto will use a variation of the new “L” version of Android, the update of the operating system due out this fall, that’s been simplified for cars. The bottom of the screen contains five controls: music, phone, maps, car apps, and overview. Car apps will probably come from automakers and will include things such as service updates, battery info, and roadside assistance. Overview is whatever Google thinks you’ll be most interested in.

Find out more about what smart phones can do in our free cell phone buying guide. And check out "5 Ways You Can Reduce Distractions While Driving" for life-saving tips.

Predicting your needs and behaviors is where Android Auto looks like it will excel. For example, in my demo, asking for the weather in Monterey produced a Google Now card with that info, and the card was also read aloud automatically. (Much of Android Auto is based on Google Now.) A follow-up question—what are the hours for the aquarium?—resulted in the answer to that question, along with the name of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, directions to get there, and estimated arrival time.

Google Play Music will, of course, be one way to serve up tunes in the car. But other developers have already come out with versions of their apps for cruising, including Pandora, Songza, and Spotify.

MLB At Bat has been retooled to fit into the Android Auto interface as well: With your paid subscription, you can listen to live ball games from any team while you drive. Joyride and PocketCast offer podcasts for your ride. And Umano will read you news stories based on preferences you set up.

Time will tell if Android Auto helps cut down on accidents caused by distracted driving. Google might be wise to vet apps for road safety before making them available to drivers.

And with Apple also working on a car interface, it will be interesting to see how things shake out in the car market. Will buyers have to commit to an Apple or Android car every time they buy a new vehicle? Meanwhile, Android Auto is taking some interesting apps on the road. Let’s hope they’re no more distracting than listening to a good old-fashioned car radio.

—Donna Tapellini

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