Why Android Auto could be a game changer

July 21, 2014
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If you want something done right you have to do it yourself. Ever since the iPod vaulted MP3 players past CD’s, car manufacturers have been creating ways to integrate compatible software into their stereo systems. This integration has taken many forms. From something as simple as an AUX jack for stereo audio, to Bluetooth connected systems with limited app support and voice control, they have gone through many iterations in less than a decade.

Now we’ve reached the next phase, Android Auto. This Google developed solution centers around your smartphone, making it a hub through which a head unit in your car can display relevant information and be controlled through touch and voice commands. We finally have software companies making software for cars instead of car manufacturers. Just by ceding control of car entertainment software to the engineers at Google, Android Auto could have a major positive impact on the car industry.

Right in Google’s wheelhouse

In the same way that Google’s goofy-looking and uninspired self-driving cars are clearly designed by software engineers, car stereo software was clearly designed by auto companies. In a pre-smartphone and tablet world, car companies could get away with proprietary software that was different for each model of car and, sometimes, for each model year. Consumers didn’t really have a reference point for how mobile software should function. But in the years following the release of Android and iOS, we’ve gotten more savvy.

Even across those two platforms there are gestures and visual prompts that have become so standardized that using one platform will make you familiar with the others. Because of this, software that was developed separately from these communities is somewhat foreign and often pretty bad. Watch a show like Car Tech on CNET.com and you can see that from Kia to Lamborghini, car companies either can’t or don’t care to do it right.

That is why Android Auto could be so game changing. It completely removes car makers from the equation and provides some standardization across competing car companies.

The ecosystem

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The solution that Android Auto has come up with is actually not that far off from other Google products. Like Chromecast and Android Wear, Google is not designing a whole new platform but more of a conduit to allow your smartphone to integrate with your car. Like Android Wear, the software makes extensive use of Google Now’s card interface and capabilities. Android Auto can display reminders, show weather, make calls, play music and navigate with Google Maps.

It also supports certain third party apps like podcasts, music players, and even sports. While there will probably be limits to what kinds of apps Android Auto will support, the openness of the platform will likely allow for a lot of innovation.

An aging car fleet

Android Auto provides a better solution for software updates. For anyone who has ever owned a car for a few years, the worst part of car stereo software is that it never gets any better. Despite all the changes that occur in the years that follow, without support, any bugs or limitations that the original had will exist for the life of the car. In other computers there are usually several updates over the course of a lifecycle and consumers replace these devices regularly. But cars are big purchases and people tend to keep them for a long time.

According to IHS Automotive, the average age for a car on US roads right now is 11.4 years, the oldest it’s ever been. By tying Android Auto to your phone and not the closed off hardware built into your car, there will finally be a real way to have the software adapt to new changes and innovations. Compared to the old ways of dealing with something as old and useless as a 6 disc CD changer in the trunk or an iPod Adaptor that doesn’t even work with newer iPods and phones, this is a huge step up.

Feeling left out

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It’s not all roses of course. In our own hands-on demo from Google I/O it is mentioned that Android Auto only works with phones running Android L. This will at first limit it to new Android phones. With the well-documented, though overstated, fragmentation of Android, this might leave some folks out of it completely. And while it might be insane to even mention this on a site like Android Authority, not everyone has or wants an Android phone and Google hasn’t indicated support for other platforms. This leaves the door open for similar competitors like Apple CarPlay and the continuation of old proprietary software.

Another caveat to Android Auto is that the hardware it will run on is still going to be decided by car manufacturers. This means that instead of the fast and smooth glass touchscreens we’re used to using on Android phones, you might still see something clunky – with buttons, dials, low-res resistive screens and strange touchpads. It will certainly be more manageable than before with the Android Auto software, but rarely ideal.

The near future

While in a perfect world our cars might be open and adaptable to whatever devices and needs we bring, with the support of auto giants like Ford, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Honda, VW and several others, it is likely that there will be a future where you can choose the car you want without having to miss out on Android Auto. We might be decades away from self-driving (flying?) cars but Google can still change the game by simply bringing quality and innovation to a new industry.

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