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Hands-on: Android Auto puts Google's in-dash experience on your phone (and, yes, it works)

Florence Ion | May 19, 2016
Forget about buying a new car or tearing out your car's dashboard. Google has a plan to bring Android Auto's distraction-free driving features directly to your phone.

Let me be almost recklessly honest: I allow my Android phone to distract me while driving. Sure, I stick to the Google Maps interface when I’m navigating somewhere, and try to avoid skipping through songs as I’m streaming music. But even with this level of quasi-carefulness, I could benefit from Google’s plan to put Android Auto directly on smartphone screens, a new feature that I tested in my own car at Google HQ on Tuesday. 

Android Auto, first announced in 2014, was designed to keep Android users like me from fiddling around with our devices when we should really be paying attention to the road. The headline features include hands-free voice control for playing music, texting, making phone calls, and navigating via Google Maps. Android Auto also features Google Now-style cards that occasionally pop up with calendar reminders and weather forecasts.

The idea is to give you only the most basic, necessary smartphone functionality in a voice-controlled interface, so that you’re not doing stupid things—like angrily firing off Facebook messages—when you should be driving. 

androidautoonyourphone 1447
Android Auto’s phone interface is just as straightforward as the dashboard version.

These are all great features, but to use Android Auto, you’ve had to either buy one of the 100 different car models that offer it, or purchase an aftermarket head unit from a company like Pioneer or Kenwood.

But, thankfully that’s all changing, as Google is working on a standalone version of Android Auto to be released later this year. No longer will you have to trade in your vehicle or tear apart your dashboard just to enjoy the system. But you will need an Android smartphone running Lollipop and up—as well as a little common sense to invest in an effective dashboard mount.

Here’s what I found during my brief time with Android Auto for the phone screen.

My car... made new again

Google let me borrow a Nexus 6P loaded with a beta version of Android Auto for the phone screen. It’s not officially called that—it’s still just “Android Auto”—but Google used that phrasing during my demo, and asked that I make an explicit distinction between Android Auto on phone screens, and Android Auto on dashboard screens. At any rate, we mounted the phone to an air conditioning vent, right underneath the stereo display, and quickly hooked it up to my car’s Bluetooth.

androidautoonyourphone 1448
Like Android Auto in your dashboard, Android Auto on your phone uses easy-to-tap cards. 

The interface for Android Auto for your phone screen is just as pared down and simple as the version of Android Auto that I originally reviewed. It’s a bigger, less busy interface than stock Android, and everything is designed to enhance visibility and minimize distraction.

 

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