The next generation of vehicular infotainment technology is here. Hyundai has become the first OEM to launch Android Auto, an exciting new computing system that puts the power of Google right in your vehicle’s dashboard.
Hands-On with Android Auto
This technology is launching in the company’s popular Sonata midsize sedan for the 2016 model year. But in a move that’s somewhat unusual, the South Korean automaker is also making the service available to customers that have already purchased 2015 models of the car. Provided they’re equipped with navigation, a software update is all it takes to enable this tremendously powerful new feature.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Miles Johnson, manager of connected care publicity at Hyundai. Android Auto is also a competitive advantage for the automaker because in the near future “everyone’s going to have it.”
The Power of Google, the Simplicity of Your Phone
From a high level the idea of Android Auto is to take the user interface of your smartphone and project it onto the display screen inside your car or truck. This provides wireless connectivity, tons of computing power and an experience that you’re already familiar with. Since your handset is typically replaced with something new every two years or so the hardware is always up to date. This is especially true when compared to built-in infotainment systems, which are designed to last a decade or more. Can you say obsolete?
Distracted driving is a major issue these days and Android Auto was designed with motorists in mind. The user interface is minimalistic and intuitive; if you’ve ever used a smartphone you’ll be able to figure this out in about two minutes. “It does what it is advertised to do,” said Johnson, adding that it’s super easy to use and most importantly, safe.
The on-screen buttons are fat-finger friendly, the layout is clean and overall the number of options has been kept to a minimum so you don’t have to hunt and peck to get the information you want. Everything is elegantly displayed and easy to figure out.
But don’t let this approachability fool you, Android Auto is incredibly powerful, after all it’s Google, which is essentially the sum of all recorded human knowledge. To name but a handful of the things this system is capable of, it can get you directions to a restaurant you’ve heard about, remind you about appointments on your calendar or give you traffic updates; it’s even able warn you about the weather, share sports scores and give information about nearby events. “It will scare you a little bit,” said Johnson.
Of course there are multiple ways to interact with Android Auto. You can use the touch screen, dedicated hardware buttons or even your voice. And that last option is particularly impressive.
Ask for information about Britney Spears or Brittany, France and it knows the difference, leaping into action as soon as you’re done speaking. Android Auto’s natural language recognition is damn impressive. Just speak and it listens. Of course it can also read text messages back to you and it even recognizes emojis, which is handy when someone sends you a smiley face or a middle finger icon.
Performance: Silky Smooth or Slow as $#!^?
Many in-vehicle infotainment systems are so bad it’s not even funny, but Android Auto brings a level of polish and responsiveness rarely seen in the automotive space. When you pinch-to-zoom on the map it snappily responds, when you go to the home screen there’s no delay, swiping through playlists is a breeze. Everything is fast and fluid, just like on your smartphone.
Unfortunately there is one caveat, and it’s kind of a big one. For this system to function it requires Android 5.0 Lollipop or higher, which is a limiting factor since much of Google’s installed base is running older software. But if you’ve got a new handset you’re in for a treat.
With Android Auto your phone communicates with the display in your vehicle via a cable. You simply plug the handset into the USB port and the system takes over. The first time you do this it automatically installs the required application on your device. Additionally, when your phone is plugged in its screen is deactivated, which further curbs distracted driving.
Third Parties, First Class
Beyond things like integrated search and navigation Android Auto also supports third-party applications, just like your phone. But right now this is pretty much limited to things like music and messaging apps, after all you shouldn’t be able to browse Facebook or read the paper while driving.
Still, apps like iHeart Radio, Stitcher, NPR and Skype are offered, so there is a fair bit of choice. But Johnson said where things go in the future is the big question on everyone’s mind. What makes sense to use in the vehicle while driving? At this point nobody has a definitive answer.
The Road Ahead
For now, Android Auto is only offered in Hyundai’s Sonata, but the Genesis, Azera and Elantra GT are next in line to get this system. They use basically the same head unit, which should make implementing it a snap. It’s scheduled to launch in these models sometime next year.
Of course Google is not the only game in town when it comes to in-vehicle connectivity. Arch nemesis Apple is hard at work on a rival system called CarPlay, which Johnson described as “a different take on the same thing.” It’s not ready quite yet but Hyundai plans to offer it when it is.
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