Android Auto shifts gears: Hands on with the new dashboard interface

Google has partnered with Volvo to build Android Auto right into the car, no phone required.

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Android Auto may not get as much attention as Waymo, Google's more exciting and mysterious self-driving car technology, but it's chugging along. While no cool new features were unveiled at I/O—and quite frankly, we’re still waiting for the Waze integration we were promised at last year’s event—Google's clearly been busy putting Android Auto directly into cars.

Right before I/O, Google announced a partnership with Volvo and Audi to integrate Android Auto right into the navigation system, no phone required. I got to see the Volvo V90’s Android-powered navigation system in action, and it’s a big upgrade from the relatively small screens we use now.

The vertical-mounted giant display was similar to the Tesla’s (though not quite as big). As soon as you turn the car on, it comes to life with four tabs to select from: Google Maps, the most recently used app, Phone, and Studio. At the bottom of the screen is a set of climate controls that let you adjust the temperature or turn on the heated sets, but you don’t have to touch the screen to operate them. Just say, “OK, Google, turn up the air conditioning,” and your car will start to get cooler.

Android Auto Daniel Masaoka

The Volvo V90 features a giant display that lets you control things like climate and cruise control along with maps and music.

Google Maps doesn’t require a phone to operate, but if you bring one along, all of your searches and trips will be synced. You’ll also be able to make calls through your phone (iPhones too, of course). There’s no dedicated messaging interface, however, you will be able to see and reply to notifications from your phone.

Available apps mirror those that work with Android Auto (which means there aren’t too many available yet), but popular services like Spotify and Pandora are represented. When you’re listening to music, you’ll be able to adjust the sound using the Studio tab, which gives you a standard set of speaker controls, including a fader, and bass and treble.

Swipe right and you’ll see options for things like the backup camera, the car's fuel-saving ECO driving mode, and cruise control. There’s a button on the steering wheel to bring up Assistant (or you can say “OK, Google”). Because the screen is resistive and not capacitive, it'll work when you’re wearing gloves, too.

I asked about updates. While they technically can be delivered over the air (OTA), the engineer I spoke to said they were still figuring out the how to push them out without disrupting the experience.

My biggest takeaway from my demo was just how much Android Auto has matured. It’s hard to see when we’re running it in our cars now, but Google has given its in-car OS an overhaul that should motivate other automakers to climb onboard. It’s more elegant than nearly every other navigation system I’ve used, and having Google Maps built-in is a major selling point.

Just like regular navigation systems, car makers can opt to allow for Apple’s CarPlay to be overlaid. That would be tricky with the Volvo V90’s vertical screen, while the Audi uses a more standard landscape display that would faithfully adhere to Apple's interface. The built-in Android Auto looks so good, it’s hard to imagine anyone opting to replace it, even if you're fully invested in the Apple ecosystem. 

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