Android Auto is an app that runs on most Android phones, but it doesn’t do a whole lot on its own. It’s more of an alternate way to control an Android phone that’s easy to use when driving.
The display is designed to be easier to read at a glance, and voice controls are heavily integrated via Google Assistant.
While Android Auto is capable of functioning as a standalone app, it’s also built with touchscreen car radios in mind, which means that you can use other apps along with it.
When connected to one of these compatible car radios, the app is capable of mirroring the phone display to the radio display and integrating with features like steering wheel audio controls.
Android Auto can do pretty much anything that an Android phone can do on its own, but tweaked and fine-tuned for an automotive setting. The basic idea is that fumbling with a phone while driving is both difficult and inherently dangerous, and Android Auto helps alleviate some of that.
The three main functions of Android auto are turn-by-turn directions, hands-free calling, and an audio player, but the system can be customized beyond that. For instance, the turn-by-turn directions in Android Auto are handled by Google Maps, but Waze integration is supported as well.
The audio player in Android Auto is also very flexible. While the default is Google Play Music, and you can listen to the local library of songs on your phone, or Google Play Music All Access if you have it, the app also supports integration with services like Pandora and Spotify, podcatchers like Pocket Casts, and many others.
Android Auto also includes a built-in weather card to show the conditions in your current location, which is very useful on long road trips. It can integrate with your phone’s dialer and supports other chat and voice apps like Skype.
When you receive a text message, or a message through an app like Skype, Android Auto is capable of reading it out loud so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road.
In its simplest form, Android Auto is exactly what it sounds like: it’s Android for your car. It’s not a blown-up version of the phone interface, but it should feel very familiar to anyone who already uses Android. It has a home screen, integrated Google Maps, and support for a slew of audio applications.
It also uses voice control for essentially everything, so you can keep your eyes on the road. It’ll read your texts to you, as well as let you reply, launch any app, navigate to a location, or play music with a simple voice command. Just like Android Wear is an Android companion you wear on your wrist, Auto is a companion that goes in the car.
Android Auto comes in three forms. You can either buy a car that has Android Auto built-in (as many 2017 models do), purchase an aftermarket head unit and have it installed, or use the app version on your phone.
The first method is, of course, the easiest and arguably best way to use Android Auto. But if you’re not in the position to buy a new car (especially just to get Auto), then it’s also the most impractical. That’s where the second choice comes into play—several car stereo manufacturers are getting into the Android Auto game these days, with companies like JBL, Kenwood, and Pioneer leading the pack.
Much like Android Wear, Auto has an app that runs on the smartphone, which does all the heavy lifting for you. As soon as you install the app and plug the phone into an Auto unit, it pairs the smartphone over Bluetooth and handles everything else over the USB connection—very little is required of the user to get started. This is the same app that runs the phone-based interface, but again, we’ll cover that in detail down below.
Once it’s all up and running, you can just toss the phone into the console, into your lap, or wherever. From this point forward, it will be rendered essentially useless—Auto will force itself into the foreground of the phone, removing access to all controls aside from Home and Back. The idea is to keep your eyes off your phone while driving. It’s smart.
The safety features don’t stop with the phone, either—Auto itself has certain safety features built-in. For example, it will only let you scroll through three pages (or so) in things like Pandora or Google Play Music if the parking brake isn’t engaged. This can make it incredibly frustrating to find a certain playlist or song, especially if it’s found on the bottom half of a list.
Where Android Auto Falls Short:
Android Auto isn’t perfect, of course. The biggest issue I ran into was with voice control. Sometimes it worked well, other times it had trouble understanding what I wanted.
For example, if I say “Play my In Flames playlist on Google Play Music,” it has no idea what I want it to do—it’s not fully aware of things like playlists in Play Music. It sometimes has a hard time with Pandora stations, too: saying “Play Alice in Chains Radio on Pandora” doesn’t always result in my Alice in Chains Radio station being played, but instead the last-played station will just start—essentially, it just launches Pandora because it doesn’t know what to do with “play Alice in Chains radio.” I’ve had much better results with “Play Alice in Chains on Pandora.” I’d like to think it should be smart enough to know the difference, but maybe I’m asking too much.
There’s also the matter of cost. If you’re getting a new car, then you can include Auto on your “want” list and be done with it. But if you are installing Android Auto into your existing car, things get pricey quickly. Android Auto head units can cost $500 on the low end, and unless you’re familiar with how technical modern car audio systems can be, they essentially require a professional installation.
So, at the end of the day, you’re looking at roughly $800 at a bare minimum to get into an aftermarket Auto unit–over $1000 if you want something that’s actually good (seriously–the low-end models come with old-school, crappy resistive touch screens.
You don’t want that). If you don’t have a significant amount of disposable income, justifying that kind of price can be tough, if do-able at all.
How to Connect Your Phone to Android Auto:
Connecting a phone to the radio or infotainment system in a car with Android Auto is easy, but a couple of things need to happen before you even get started. First, the phone must be updated to at least Android 5.0 (Lollipop) or Android Auto won’t work at all. The phone also needs to have Android Auto installed, and the car radio or infotainment system needs to be compatible with Android Auto.
If all of those boxes have been checked, then connecting a phone to Android Auto is a pretty easy process:
Check your phone’s internet connection. It will need a strong Wi-Fi or mobile data connection for this process to work.
Ensure the vehicle is in park.
Turn on the vehicle.
Turn on the phone.
Connect the phone to the vehicle via a USB cable.
Review and accept the safety notice and the terms and conditions for using Android Auto.
Follow the on-screen prompts on your phone. If you haven’t set up Android Auto before, you will need to grant the app access to various permissions.
Select the Android Auto app on the display of your car radio or infotainment system and follow the on-screen prompts.
After you have performed this process the first time, you will be able to plug your phone in via USB to activate Android Auto any time you want. If using a wired connection isn’t convenient, then you can choose to pair your phone via Bluetooth instead.