Google Assistant Takes the Wheel in Android Auto

Sitting shotgun in a Volvo V90, I watched as the driver used the Android-powered infotainment system in the crossover wagon to chart a course to San Francisco.

"Let's get a coffee along the way," he suggested, pressing a button on the steering wheel to activate Google Assistant, which found a Starbucks on our route while recalculating directions to our final destination. And because the car was getting a little toasty on a warm Northern California spring afternoon, we asked Google Assistant to turn up the Volvo's air conditioning a notch.

Of course, since our demo car was sitting in the middle of a tent at Google's I/O conference, we weren't actually going anywhere. But Google's automotive ambitions certainly seem to be in overdrive, as it works to incorporate Google Assistant into its Android Auto automotive platform.

This Volvo V90 prototype uses Android to power its infotainment system.

This Volvo V90 prototype uses Android to power its infotainment system.

Just this week, Google announced that both Volvo and Audi plan to use Android to run the infotainment systems on future cars. While it's unclear when these Android-equipped autos will hit the road, this is a deeper integration than earlier iterations of Android Auto. For starters, the infotainment systems in these cars will operate independently of your phone. And Google Assistant, Google's voice-powered digital helper, will be along for the ride.

MORE: 30 Best Things Google Assistant Can Do

Both Volvo and Audi had prototypes on display at I/O this week — besides the V90, Audi had a Q8 that conference attendees could sit in for a spell. Once inside either car, you could get a glimpse of just how Android will integrate itself into your ride, controlling music playback, adjusting heating and air conditioning, and helping with navigation.

The interior of Audi's Android-equipped Q8.

The interior of Audi's Android-equipped Q8.

In Audi's Q8, the infotainment system panel featured a tile-based interface — all the easier to quickly tap a selection without taking your eyes off the road. And while Android wasn't powering the car's digital instrument console in the Q8, it could tap into information from that system to help with calculations like listing the time to your destination.

In a broad sense, this doesn't sound like that much of a departure from Android Auto, Google's effort to optimize its mobile operating system for the car so that drivers can get navigation info and control music, podcasts and audiobooks without distractions. At last year's I/O, a Maserati concept car showed off an infotainment system built on Android Nougat.

Volvo's V90 also uses Android to power its infotainment panel.

Volvo's V90 also uses Android to power its infotainment panel.

The difference, of course, is that Audi and Volvo are moving forward with actual cars, not just concepts. And more importantly, Google Assistant is part of the mix now, adding hands-free operation to Android-powered infotainment setups.

That's a big addition, especially given Google Assistant's emphasis on conversational commands. When it was time to adjust the climate control in the Volvo V90, I didn't have to instruct the Assistant to turn on the air conditioning or rattle off a specific temperature. Aall I had to do was say, "OK Google, make it cooler in the car."

If Google has its way, you'll be able to tap into the Google Assistant to perform more actions from the driver's seat. A session at the I/O developers conference focused on how app makers can better tailor their offerings for the car, and voice-driven actions seem to be a key part of that.

The Audi Q8 at Google I/O

The Audi Q8 at Google I/O

Google sees several potential uses cases for the Assistant to be your co-pilot on drives. A third-party app could be adapted for the car to let you make reservations or order take-out during your commute.

You could also potentially use voice commands to sync up with your smart-home devices from the road, turning on the lights before you get home so you don't have to walk into a dark house, or locking your doors if you forgot to in the rush to get out of the house in the morning. There's even a gaming potential, as the Assistant can launch trivia and quiz games to entertain your kids on lengthy road trips.

All that depends on developers coming out with auto-friendly versions of their apps, and Google's Android becoming the driving force behind more infotainment systems in cars. But those plans are clearly in motion to make Android more of a presence in our cars.

For more Google Assistant-related tips, tricks, and how-tos, check out our complete guide to Google Assistant.

Photo Credits: Philip Michaels/Tom's Guide

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.