Like Apple and its connected-car application, CarPlay, Google has software for connecting Android phones to the dashboards of new vehicles. Android Auto uses a "card" metaphor to describe its new graphics interface, which shows up on a car's LCD screen.
The idea is to make it simpler to access Android in the car and use Google apps like Maps via a more attractive, more legible interface that doesn't create additional distractions.
Android Auto is now supported by most connected-car systems and can even run independently on an Android phone without being paired to an in-dash system. However, to reduce distractions and improve legibility, we recommend using the system on a car's larger dashboard LCD. Here's what you need to know about Android Auto.
Which smartphones are compatible with Android Auto?
Any phone running Android 5.0 (Lollipop) or later should work with the software.
You can check your phone's software version by looking at the About Device section under Settings. However, nearly any phone purchased within the last 18 months should work with the software.
How do you connect your phone to Android Auto?
As with Apple's CarPlay, to set up Android Auto you have to use a USB cable. To pair an Android phone with a vehicle's Auto app, first make sure Android Auto is installed on your phone. If not, it's a free download from the Play store.
Next, plug the phone into the dashboard with a USB cable. When your car detects that your phone has been connected, it will initiate the Auto app and ask to update certain compatible apps, such as Google Maps.
Which cars offer Android Auto?
Virtually all automakers, from Audi to Volvo, support Android Auto in one if not all of their current models. Most of the same car companies recognize that drivers want a choice, so the automakers also offer support for Apple's CarPlay. Even companies, like Mazda, that have been slow to adopt the technology have now made software upgrades to include Android Auto.
There are a couple of exceptions. A few exotic brands, like Ferrari, support only CarPlay. (Maserati, on the other hand, does support Android Auto.) And there is one major car company that doesn't support either Android Auto or CarPlay: Toyota.
Which apps work with Android Auto?
Android Auto supports nearly 40 apps, as well as Google's mapping navigation system and search functions. Apps include Waze, Skype, Amazon Music, Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and Stitcher.
There are some glaring omissions that could be helpful on the road, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. Furthermore, apps have been slow to materialize in Android Auto, as each has to be specially tailored to reduce distraction on a car's dashboard screen. Like Apple, Google controls which programs are allowed to work with its auto software.
Do voice commands work with Android Auto? And what about Google Assistant?
Yes. When using Android Auto, drivers can ask the same questions they would on their phone, simply by pushing the car's voice button. Users can ask for directions, dial a phone number, dictate a message, or get the software to play a particular artist or song. However, like Apple's CarPlay, voice commands apply only to apps within Android Auto.
Android Auto voice commands will not, for example, control the car's temperature or AM/FM radio. And Google relies on the phone's cellular data connection. So, if there's no cellular service, some functions will not work. In short, you should expect the same level of functionality that you would receive on an Android phone. For instance, you can ask, "What's the weather like in Boston?" and Android Auto will tell you.
As for Google Assistant (the company's answer to Amazon's Alexa), those specific functions — such as coordinating smart home devices — are not yet built in to Android Auto.
Can I add Android Auto in the car I already own?
Older vehicles cannot generally be upgraded via software to support Android Auto. The one exception among automakers is Hyundai, which has a few 2016 models, such as the Sonata, that are upgradable.
You can replace your existing car stereo or navigation system and purchase a new in-dash infotainment system that works with Android Auto. There are a variety of such models from Alpine, JVC and others. However, most require a so-called double DIN slot in the dashboard, while most older cars can accommodate only a smaller, single DIN device.
One solution is Pioneer AVH-3300NEX, a 1-DIN receiver that supports Android Auto and CarPlay, as well as CDs, satellite radio and Bluetooth. No matter what system you choose, we recommend that you get the equipment installed by a professional.
Does Android Auto take control of the dashboard?
No. As with Apple's CarPlay, you cannot use the Android Auto app to select radio stations, turn on cruise control or adjust the A/C in the car. To change the temperature, for example, drivers will have to use the usual heating and ventilation buttons or the car's own, separate voice-recognition system.
There is some basic level of coordination between the Android Auto app and the car, however, so that, for example, streaming-music playback will be muted when a lane-departure warning bell sounds.
Do Android Auto-compatible vehicles also support Apple's CarPlay?
Both software programs are essentially just apps that appear in a car's dashboard display. Consequently, virtually every automaker is committed to supporting both Apple and Google, and most have at least a few car models that do so. The one glaring exception is the world's No. 1 automaker, Toyota. Its latest in-dash software still does not support Android Auto or CarPlay.
Most car companies also will continue to support their own apps. So, for example, you don't have to use Android Auto to play streaming music. Car companies like Hyundai have said they'll continue to support additional apps on their own so that drivers are not limited to Apple or Google. Furthermore, many car companies, such as Ford and Toyota, already have an extensive list of apps that work with Android phones, so drivers don't have to switch to Android Auto if they don't want to.
More importantly, most automakers are including their own built-in navigation software, which works without a connected smartphone or cell connection (and, consequently, tends to be faster than phone-based navigation). However, some less-expensive vehicles, such as the Mitsubishi Outlander, do not include navigation software and expect drivers to use Android Auto or CarPlay for such services.
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