2020 Android Auto home screen 01

10 Things You Need to Know About Android Auto

We all know the perils of trying to use your phone while driving. When you’re zipping down the highway or navigating a busy street, it can be a life-altering mistake to look away from the road at the little screen in your lap or cupholder. Our phones feature so much technology to make our drives so much more convenient and enjoyable that many are often tempted to take that risk. A safer option is to enjoy the phone’s same functionality through your car’s infotainment screen. This screen is bigger than your phone and sits more in your line of sight, and the system is designed to accept voice commands. If you have an iPhone, this feature is called Apple CarPlay. Nearly anyone else who has a smartphone can turn to Android Auto, the subject of today’s article. Here are 10 things you need to know about Android Auto.

  1. 1. Android Auto essentially puts your phone on your car’s screen.
  2. 2. Android Auto listens to you through your phone.
  3. 3. Android Auto is newly updated this year.
  4. 4. Several hundred different apps are available.
  5. 5. You don't need a factory navigation system.
  6. 6. Android Auto syncs with your Google account.
  7. 7. It's user-friendly.
  8. 8. Nearly all phones and new cars support Android Auto.
  9. 9. You can get Android Auto in an aftermarket head unit, too.
  10. 10. Android Auto offers similar functionality to Apple CarPlay.
1. Android Auto essentially puts your phone on your car’s screen.

1. Android Auto essentially puts your phone on your car’s screen.

In a nutshell, Android Auto lets you turn your car’s dashboard screen into an extension of your Android phone. Download the Android Auto app onto your phone, plug the phone into your car’s USB port, and the car and phone will sync in seconds. A few newer Pixel, Nexus, and Samsung phones even let you connect to Android Auto wirelessly via your car’s Bluetooth receiver. When Android Auto is running, your phone’s compatible apps show up on the car’s screen. Most cars that support Android Auto have touchscreens where you tap the app you want just like on your phone; some other vehicles use touchpads or, like this Alfa Romeo Stelvio, rotary knobs to control the infotainment system, which takes a few seconds of extra learning curve. Your car’s steering wheel controls, volume knobs, and some other buttons and dials also control the Android Auto system, depending on the vehicle. You won’t see any of your car’s normal screen interface while Android Auto is active, but you can easily switch between the two systems.

2. Android Auto listens to you through your phone.

2. Android Auto listens to you through your phone.

While many of today’s cars have voice-recognition capability, Android Auto still uses your phone’s handset when you talk. That means you’re talking to the same Google system that lives with you every day, which knows you better than your car would. It also means you can make voice commands using Android Auto even if your car doesn’t otherwise have that feature.  Fire up the voice commands with the microphone icon on the screen or, if equipped, the voice-recognition button on your car's steering wheel. Then ask the system to do anything from “make a call,” “reply to a message,” “get driving directions,” and “listen to music.” And in many cases, the system will reply to you through the car speakers, supplying verbal GPS directions, or reading aloud your messages or calendar appointments. This helps keep your eyes off the screen and on the road.

3. Android Auto is newly updated this year.

3. Android Auto is newly updated this year.

Android Auto debuted in 2015 and received a redesigned interface in the summer of 2019. The new Android Auto, shown here on a Kia Niro EV electric crossover, provides an experience that’s more similar to today’s Android smartphones. The biggest change is that the system’s home screen lets you jump directly to the app you’d like. In the past, the home screen was mostly blank: a clock with some menu options below it. That meant it took more steps to get to the apps you wanted to use — making this old system slower and more distracting than the new layout. Similarly, you can now more quickly switch among recently used apps, like on your phone.

4. Several hundred different apps are available.

4. Several hundred different apps are available.

Android Auto is most famous for a handful of apps: GPS navigators like Google Maps and Waze; texting capability via Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, and others; and music via Google or third-party apps like Pandora and Spotify. But while Android Auto launched with relatively few apps available, the list has grown by dozens over the years. You can listen to news headlines or audiobooks (as shown here in a Kia Niro EV electric crossover), make and receive calendar reminders, and tune in to numerous radio stations’ live streams even when you’re out of their reception area. Just don’t expect Android Auto to ever feature extra-distracting apps like Candy Crush or Instagram.

5. You don't need a factory navigation system.

5. You don't need a factory navigation system.

Until Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, drivers had two main ways to get GPS directions: Peer at their phone screen or other portable GPS unit, or pony up big bucks for a built-in navigation system from the car’s manufacturer. But phones are small, and the factory navigation systems are expensive — typically more than $1,000 or part of a pricey options package — and they fall behind the times as the car ages. Android Auto solves all that. You can choose between the beloved Google Maps and Waze navigation apps for instant access to the most up-to-date directions with live traffic information, all for free (minus the drain on your cellphone’s data plan).

6. Android Auto syncs with your Google account.

6. Android Auto syncs with your Google account.

Like your Android smartphone, Android Auto syncs with the Google account you use on any device. That means if you search for a good pizza place on your laptop and then get in your car, Android Auto will be instantly ready to give you directions. From just typing one or two characters of an address or point of interest, Google can guess where you want to go. Compare that to most factory navigation systems, where you go through multiple screens to select a state, then a house number, and then a street name. Although it’s especially useful for directions, Android Auto also brings over all your contacts, recent calls and texts, IM conversations, calendar information, and more. And whether you’ve updated any of these from your phone, from your tablet, from your computer, or from inside your car, the new message, appointment, or contact will sync across all of them.

7. It's user-friendly.

7. It's user-friendly.

If all this talk of using your car as a phone is making you worry about distracted driving, fear not: Android Auto is easier to use while driving than your phone, or even most cars’ infotainment systems. We described how Android Auto offers speedy searches and useful voice-recognition capabilities. But its apps are also redesigned from the versions you’d see on your phone. They’re optimized for landscape rather than portrait view. They’re simpler than the phone apps, with bigger buttons and less clutter so that you can quickly see what you’re looking for. And some of them lock out certain features while you’re driving, for example by only reading aloud your calendar rather than letting you review it on the screen. All these changes help make the system perfect for using while you’re on the road, providing useful information without excess distraction. You’ll also use it in pretty much the same way no matter what car you’re in; you don’t have to learn a new infotainment system each time you rent a car or buy a new one.

8. Nearly all phones and new cars support Android Auto.

8. Nearly all phones and new cars support Android Auto.

When Android Auto first came out, folks with older smartphones were out of luck: The system required a then-recent operating system, Android Lollipop (version 5.0). But now, you won’t find many phones with such an old system; Google replaced it with Marshmallow (6.0) in 2015. That means if you have an Android phone today, it almost certainly can handle the Android Auto app. Similarly, relatively few cars supported Android Auto when it first appeared, but since then automakers have scrambled to incorporate the popular feature. Some models still leave it off their base trim levels, but it’s frequently standard across the board. And one of the industry’s biggest Android Auto holdouts — Toyota and its Lexus subsidiary — just started supporting the system on some new 2020 models. That leaves BMW as the only notable carmaker without Android Auto; the “Ultimate Driving Machine” only plays with iPhones.

9. You can get Android Auto in an aftermarket head unit, too.

9. You can get Android Auto in an aftermarket head unit, too.

If your car doesn’t have Android Auto from the factory, you’re not out of luck. You can buy and install an aftermarket stereo head unit whose touchscreen will support the system. When we searched online, we quickly found a broad selection of head units compatible with Android Auto from well-known brands like Pioneer, JVC, Sony, and Kenwood. Most cost between $200 and $400, not including installation if you choose to have that done professionally. That’s not super-cheap, but it’s much less than most carmakers charge for a factory navigation system.

10. Android Auto offers similar functionality to Apple CarPlay.

10. Android Auto offers similar functionality to Apple CarPlay.

If you’re used to using an iPhone with Apple CarPlay, you’ll find Android Auto pretty similar. The gist of the two systems is the same: using your car’s infotainment screen to access your smartphone’s functionality. And nearly any car that supports one of these systems also supports the other — aside from BMWs and some recent-model Toyotas, which are compatible only with CarPlay. The biggest difference is the obvious one: Android Auto requires a smartphone running Google’s Android operating system, while Apple CarPlay works only with Apple devices.