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New Android Auto App Puts Your Phone in Driver's Seat

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — When you take a road trip this fall, Android Auto wants to ride shotgun. And you won't need anything except an Android phone to take advantage of Google's dashboard navigation and infotainment system.

Google plans to update Android Auto later this year so that it runs as a standalone app. Currently, if you want Android Auto along for the ride, you have to either buy a new car with the software preinstalled, or buy an aftermarket radio to install in your current car. After Google's update, any Android phone running Lollipop or later will be able to use Android Auto.

MORE: What's Next for Car Tech: The Road to Self-Driving Autos

The trick, a Googler explained to me during a hands-on demo at Google I/O this week, is to move the experience you'd get on a car display to a smartphone mounted on a car's dashboard, but in a way that minimizes driver distractions.

That means some redesign tweaks, such as making the navigation bars and text slightly larger so that drivers can more easily see them. You can also use voice controls in the standalone version of Android Auto so that your eyes can remain on the road.

Android Auto combines a lot of the functions you might already have on your phone in a package that's geared toward drivers, adding the kinds of things you'd want access to while behind the wheel.

Besides providing directions and maps, Android Auto also manages your music playback, with support for Spotify, Pandora, Google Play Music, Stitcher, Pocket Casts and Audible, among others. It also manages calls, gives you weather information and lets you send text messages through assorted third-party apps.

A lot of these experiences are tailored for drivers. With text messaging, for example, Android Auto will read incoming messages and let you dictate outgoing texts, so that you're never tempted to take your hands off the steering wheel.

For maps, when you search for something like a gas station while driving, the Android Auto app will only show choices on the route ahead of you — there's no value in seeing what you've already passed — while also displaying how far off your route each option is. Even better, when you pick one of those stations, Android Auto adds it as a stop on your current route.

Though Android Auto didn't get a prominent place at I/O this year — it wasn't really talked up in the event's keynote, and the auto demo area was tucked back in a far corner of the Shoreline Amphitheatre parking lot — the automotive platform is getting a lot of attention from both Google and car makers. Google plans to integrate Waze into Android Auto, adding that app's traffic, speed trap and accident data.

Android Auto with Waze integration

Android Auto with Waze integration

A representative from Hyundai told me that the car maker is working with Google to do something with an under-utilized channel in Android Auto that would let car makers insert their own mini apps into the platform, such as apps that manufacturers already offer in their own infotainment system.

In Hyundai's case, that could mean features like a valet alert that tells you when your car leaves a certain radius, or driving info that collects data on how many hard brakes you made during your last trip, or the ability to call for roadside assistance from within Android Auto.

Perhaps the most eye-catching demo in the Android Auto area at Google I/O was a bright red Maserati Ghibli running an Android N-based infotainment system. While I didn't get to sit inside the car myself, I did get a good look at the sled that recreates the car's dashboard so that developers and engineers can work on it inside offices that are ill-equipped to house Maseratis.

The dashboard of this concept car featured two displays — one a 15-inch 4K monitor with large type so that drivers could get an at-a-glance view of Android Auto notification cards, and the other a 720p display right behind the wheel that presents the most relevant information to the driver. (That information can change depending on context; fiddle with the radio, and you'll get playback information instead of, say, current weather conditions.) A Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 Automotive processor powered the whole setup.

The dashboard of Google's Android N-powered concept car

The dashboard of Google's Android N-powered concept car

For the most part, the interface looked a lot like the typical Android Auto layout, with cards displaying everything from recent calls to driving directions. But you can spot the Android N influence, particularly on the 15-inch display and its ability to use a split-screen mode to call out different functions.

The Android N-powered auto interface is just a concept for now. But it shows that Google is taking its automotive efforts very seriously.