So, what exactly is Android Auto?

what is android auto
Photo: Amee Reehal

Automakers are integrating Android Auto into new vehicles, but what is it exactly? How does it work, what does it do? Is it worth it? Here’s a quick look.

by Chris Chase

So, what is Android Auto? Simply put, it is an in-vehicle smartphone integration program that lets Android device users access certain phone functions hands-free through a vehicle’s infotainment system.

Like Bluetooth, it allows you to make and receive hands-free phone calls. It’s more sophisticated, though, in that it also provides access to the Google Assistant voice command prompt, lets you port your phone’s GPS navigation app to the car’s screen, will play your media library, and can access certain other apps.

How Does Android Auto Work, and What Can It Do?

One of Auto’s primary benefits is that provides an Android phone user with a familiar interface in the car. The idea is to help eliminate distractions caused by the vehicle’s built-in – or “native” – infotainment system, especially if you’ve just bought a new car and you’re not yet accustomed to its controls.

Another plus is that you can use in-car navigation even if it didn’t come installed in your vehicle’s native infotainment setup. It uses the Google Maps app to provide navigation guidance, placing the map and routing on the car’s infotainment display and playing spoken turn-by-turn instructions through the sound system.

Android Auto also imports destinations you’ve saved in Google Maps. You can use the car’s voice recognition controls to issue verbal commands like “navigate home” or “call mom and dad.” 

Android Auto supports a long list of free apps, available at Google Play. Photo: 9to5Google

While designed primarily to let you use Google apps through the car’s interface, it also supports a long list of third-party apps; you can view that list at Google Play.

To get started, you must have the Android Auto app on your device. If your phone or tablet is running version 10 of the Android operating system (the latest as of April 2020), then the app came with the phone. If your device is running Android version 9 or older, you’ll have to download the app from the Google Play store (it’s free).

Of course, there are some downfalls with the popular app. Sketchy voice control is one of them, according to How-To-Geek’s article on the subject. Mind you, this article is from 2018 so perhaps Google fixed some of these issues by now. But this frustration with spoken requests is shared with others, including this piece from APNews on the pros and cons of in-car personal assistants.

Is it Worth Buying a New Car For?

If you place your Android smartphone in a dashboard mount every time you get in your car, then yes, we think it would be worthwhile to choose a vehicle that comes with Android Auto next time you purchase a car or truck.

In most cases, the car’s display screen will be larger than that of your phone and, consequently, easier to use. Also, even with the phone in a dash mount, a police officer who sees you operating your device while driving could probably justify ticketing you for phone-related distracted driving.

You need only use the car’s built-in interface, which is okay according to the law, as long as your attention is primarily focused on driving.

Which Cars Are Compatible With Android Auto?

This question is easiest to answer for new cars. As we write this, Bentley and BMW are the only brands that do not yet offer Android Auto in North America, but the app’s website says it will soon be available in both companies’ cars.

As far as used cars, availability depends on the brand, the model and year. Many brands began building in Android Auto capability between 2017 and 2020; Hyundai and Kia were among the earliest adopters, as some of those brands’ 2015 models are compatible with the free app.

There you have it, a quick look at Google’s popular in-car app. If you’re curious about the other one, here’s our article on What is Apple CarPlay?