Will Android Auto match Apple CarPlay's cool connectivity?

We get hands-on with the latest infotainment revolution

Published: November 18, 2014 08:15 PM

Following the hype parade regarding Apple’s CarPlay system arriving soon in the automotive infotainment space, Google will be entering the arena in late 2015 with Android Auto.

At the LA Auto Show, Google reps showed off beta-test versions of Android Auto connected to a Hyundai Sonata. About 52 percent of the smart phone market uses Android devices, according to ComScore. That means lots of heathens who don’t worship Apple products also need a way to more intuitively connect their phones to their cars.

Much like CarPlay’s iPhone-like interface, Android Auto works by mating your Google-based phone to your car’s USB port and turning the central screen into a larger monitor. The interface uses Android 5.0 Lollipop software to place most of your phone’s apps and services on the car’s central screen. Note: that’s most apps. Android won’t let you stream YouTube or play Flappy Bird in the car.

But if it’s listening to Google Music or Spotify, navigating by Google Maps, or even responding to emails, Android Auto has it covered with a minimum of driver distraction.

Upon connecting, the screen display is basic and straightforward. The large-type, large-button home screen displays a navigation square of your surroundings, your immediate upcoming events, and the weather. A virtual dock at the bottom of the screen allows you to quickly leap to navigation, phone, mail, and music.

One frustration for many car-phone connections involves music. Many times, the playlist you were listening to on your phone reverts to the first song once you connect to your car. And, really, haven’t we had enough of “All Out of Love” by Air Supply? But Android Auto continues playing whatever you were listening to before you got in the car.

To address driver distraction, Android Auto puts texting, email, and third-party messaging apps like WhatsApp into speech-to-text mode. Incoming messages are read to you by Google’s speech interface. You can respond by pressing your vehicle’s voice command button on the steering wheel, and the interface will turn your words into text.

“People are already using their devices in the cars. They know it’s unsafe, but they are doing it anyway. Android Auto keeps people safe because it keeps things familiar,” says Andy Brenner, Android project manager for Google.

Like Apple’s Siri search function, Talk to Google allows searches via steering wheel buttons. It is remarkably intuitive. An example: You are driving in Los Angeles, but ask about the weather in San Diego. You then ask about the hours at the zoo (without mentioning which city), and Talk to Google intuits that you are asking about the San Diego Zoo, not the Los Angeles Zoo.

Google wants Android Auto to work alongside the car’s native interface, rather than turn the central screen into a “dumb” terminal. So if you like your car’s navigation system, but want to listen to Spotify on your phone and display it on the center screen, Brenner says Android Auto should be able to perform both functions simultaneously.

­—Mark Rechtin and Seung Min Yu

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