What is Android Auto?

How does it work and what does it do?

Car Technology

Android Auto is a system designed by Google, in conjunction with car manufacturers, that allows you to control selected apps on your Android smartphone from your car’s infotainment system. The idea is to allow drivers to control selected apps on your phone in a safe manner while driving, such as your navigation, phone, messaging and music apps.

The system is pretty much a rip-off of the rival Apple CarPlay system, which is not surprising given that Android itself is a copy of Apple’s iOS and most Android smartphones are wannabe iPhones…

Along with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto is gradually being adopted by virtually every car company as new models are unveiled. The central display screens on new cars are perfect for Android Auto to create a display that looks very much like an Android smartphone screen, using app icons that look exactly the same as the ones on your phone.

This Hyundai is using Android Auto for navigation rather than its own system

Some older systems can be retrofitted with Android Auto, either by the car manufacturer or by independent companies, and there are a growing number of aftermarket stereo systems that can run Android Auto and CarPlay.

Systems like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will potentially revolutionise in-car infotainment systems, providing a much better experience for car owners at a lower cost than traditional systems. A smartphone is far more advanced than your car’s radio and satnav system anyway, so it seems smarter for your car to use your phone’s technology rather than provide its own, inferior, systems.

The system also uses Google’s version of Siri, the “OK Google” voice control system, in addition to the car’s controls. So if you prefer not to fiddle around with buttons or a touchscreen, you can simply tell Android Auto what to do.

Which functions can I use?

Android Auto allows you to access the following while driving:

Navigation: Your Android smartphone has a free and regularly updated navigation system already built in, thanks to Google Maps. It comes complete with a full “turn by turn” navigation system that is better than most portable satnav units or integrated manufacturer nav systems.

Alternatively, you can use the popular Waze navigation app if you prefer it to Google Maps. Other navigations apps may also be available in the future.

Phone calls: Using your car’s steering wheel phone controls, or the controls for the display screen, you can answer or reject calls, listen to voicemails.

There’s no need to sync your contacts between your phone and your car, as the system gets the information directly from your phone when a call is made or received.

Messages: Your text messages can be displayed on the car’s display screen, or the system can read them to you if you prefer. You can also dictate a message to send to anyone in your contacts.

Audio: You can play music, podcasts or audiobooks stored on your phone from Google Play Music account, or from other music apps like Spotify or Amazon Music. You can also access radio apps like BBC iPlayer Radio.

Manufacturer apps: Many car manufacturers have developed specific apps that allow you to access certain car settings from the Android Auto display. To date, these have been very basic, but will develop further as demand grows and the manufacturers develop systems that integrate better with Android Auto.

Do I need Android Auto on my new car?

If you are buying a new car and it offers the option of Android Auto (usually along with Apple CarPlay as well), it is definitely a worthwhile addition. At the moment, the level of integration between your phone and your car is somewhat limited, but this will accelerate rapidly in coming years.

The key selling points of Android Auto are:

  • A (usually) seamless integration of selected functions of your smartphone with your car’s infotainment system
  • It’s always up to date, as Google updates Android regularly. When was the last time you updated your car’s operating system (or even had the option to)? If you have ever been frustrated by the navigation system on a ten-year-old car, you’ll understand the importance of keeping things up to date.
  • Voice control. As cars and infotainment systems get ever-more complex, the option to simply speak to your car is becoming a real advantage. Voice recognition software has improved enormously over the last decade, so if you have previously tried voice control in your car and hated it, it may be worth another try.
  • Only approved apps are accessible when driving. Your smartphone essentially blacks out when you plug it into your car, so any non-essential notifications will not be displayed until you disconnect it again. So no Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter or other distractions while you’re driving.

Important considerations are:

  • Android Auto needs a decent phone signal at all times. Google Maps, Google Play Music, Spotify and most other apps require a constant data signal to function. If you are driving beyond cellular network range, Android Auto won’t work.
  • Your phone needs to be plugged in to charge at all times. With your smartphone running your car stereo and providing navigation, and continually downloading and uploading data, your phone battery will go flat in no time. To date, all the compatible systems available have used a cable to connect to your phone, so it will charge your phone while it working anyway. However, BMW has announced the first wireless Android Auto and CarPlay system, which sounds great but will kill your phone battery on a long journey. Some cars now have wireless charging as well, which you will need if you’re not plugging the phone in every time.

Is Android Auto actually any good?

Depending on how new your particular model of car is, you may not find that Android Auto works any better than your existing navigation or voice control systems. However, a key part of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is that they will continue to be updated and improved, just like the operating system on your phone.

This means your car infotainment system will continue to get smarter over time, unlike existing systems that don’t improve or maintain compatibility with newer hardware and software.

What if I’m buying a used car? Can I get Android Auto added?

Most existing cars on the road were not designed with Android Auto in mind – in fact, one of the problems with traditional car infotainment systems is that they usually lag years behind consumers (which is why most new cars are still sold with CD players). Some systems can be retrofitted to accommodate CarPlay and/or Android Auto, but many can’t.

If you have an old-school standard size rectangular stereo (called DIN, or double DIN for units that are twice as tall), then you can easily replace your current unit with an aftermarket stereo that incorporates Android Auto. There are several stereo manufacturers who make Android Auto units that can slot straight into your car, and prices generally start at a couple of hundred pounds.

However, these have been getting increasingly rare over the last decade, as manufacturers preferred to fit integrated infotainment systems that are not interchangeable. This is more of a problem, as you can’t just pull out the old system and replace it.

For more popular brands like Audi, aftermarket companies have been developing hardware and software that updates existing systems to work with Android Auto. In coming years, many more companies are likely to find ways of adding CarPlay and Android Auto to your old unit, but it may take years to cover all the makes and models in the marketplace, so don’t hold your breath waiting.

Stuart Masson

Stuart is the Editor of The Car Expert, which he founded in 2011, and our new sister site The Van Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the car industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.

1 Comment

  1. If you’re looking to stay bang up-to-date with your gadgets, a used car is likely to disappoint, unless you factor this in and work around it. That is my experience anyway. Remember the old S-Class Mercedes with the built-in Nokia charger, know what I mean?

    Dave

    Reply

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