Android Auto is a feature in new cars (and some aftermarket car stereos) that allows you to control and view certain Android smartphone-based apps through the dashboard’s media system, including moving-map navigation functionality.
Related: What Is Apple CarPlay?
Apple got the jump on Google due to its earlier iPod-integration partnerships with automakers. In 2014, it launched Apple CarPlay, a similar smartphone-mirroring capability that works with iOS devices. Android Auto (we’ll just call it AA) evened the score in 2015, providing essentially the same functions plus Google Maps and Waze. Apple broke down and incorporated them in 2018, having relied on Apple Maps exclusively since CarPlay’s launch.
What Kind of Apps?
The mirroring of navigation apps on the car’s dashboard display is probably AA’s most important feature because it adds functionality the car might not otherwise have. AA can provide in-dash turn-by-turn navigation using maps that are always up to date and supplemented with the latest traffic data — unlike “native” navigation traditionally built into cars, whose maps and data feeds may require a subscription or manual update.
The rest of AA’s features mainly involve minimizing distraction from other apps by allowing control through the in-dash multimedia system and voice commands, the latter through a voice-recognition button on the steering wheel. Any car stereo equipped with Bluetooth audio streaming can play phone-based audio, but in that case, you need to control it through the phone itself, which can be more distracting.
AA includes hands-free telephone support plus voice-to-text functionality (and vice versa), so you can hear text messages read aloud over the stereo and respond without taking your hands off the wheel or eyes off the road. This doesn’t eliminate the mental distraction, but it can remove some of the risk of running afoul of laws on phone usage in cars, which in practice may be interpreted to mean you aren’t even allowed to touch the phone.
Most of the other supported features are streaming-audio services like Pandora, Slacker Radio and SiriusXM Radio, which AA displays on the dashboard with Android-esque icons and menu structures. Additional texting apps have also been appearing. See the current list here.
How Do You Use It?
A car equipped with AA usually has a setting that must be turned on before it will recognize a compatible phone, which is any Android phone running operating system 5.0 (“Lollipop”) or higher to which you’ve downloaded the AA app. You simply plug your phone into the car’s USB data port, and it will automatically prompt you on the phone and possibly the car’s display. Because it’s a mirroring system, what happens next can change with smartphone app updates, and it has over the years. Where the process formerly required a couple of screens in succession, now you’re just one button push away from activating AA for the first time. Upon subsequent connections with the same phone, AA usually fires up automatically and the interface will pop up on the dashboard screen. (In our experience, how quickly this happens depends on both the car and phone in question.)
AA automatically pairs your smartphone to the car’s Bluetooth for audio streaming, but the USB connection is also required, in part, for more demanding data transfer like navigation. Wireless Apple CarPlay has begun to appear in some German luxury models, in which it uses Wi-Fi for data-intensive transfer. Though Android has its own version of the same capability, as of its launch in March 2019, it’s limited to aftermarket head units and some Google phones; we’ve yet to see it in a new car. As of its debut, wireless AA requires a Pixel or Nexus phone with Android 8.0 (“Oreo”) or higher, the AA app version 3.1 or higher and a USB cable for initial setup, according to Google.
If you want to go in the other direction, the AA app can actually operate independently on the phone, where it basically gives you an interface that’s easier to use while driving, even if the car isn’t compatible.
What Cars Offer Android Auto?
It took quite a while, but the answer now is that a majority of new cars offer AA, though it isn’t always standard or available on all trim levels. BMW and Lexus remain holdouts, but Toyota had been as well, and now the company says some 2019 and 2020 model-year cars will add AA; no word as of this writing on Lexus, a Toyota division. See the current list here, but note that it isn’t always as current as hoped. As of this writing, Jaguar and Land Rover had already begun adding AA to some 2019 and 2020 models equipped with the InControl Touch Pro or Touch Pro Duo in-dash system, but both brands still appeared in the Coming Soon section. Click on a brand’s logo, regardless of its categorization, to get more recent data.
Can I Add Android Auto to My Current Vehicle?