LOS ANGELES — Driving is fun and all, but for a growing number of car buyers, a car's ability to play nice with their smartphone is just as important. After announcing the Apple CarPlay interface at the 2015 Hyundai Sonata's debut in New York, Hyundai dispatched Google developers to the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show to demonstrate Android Auto. It offers the same basic functionality as the Apple interface but with Google-based apps.
Notably, Android Auto won't be limited to certain phone models; rather, it will work with any Android smartphone running the latest Android Lollipop operating system. However, neither Google nor Hyundai (nor the slew of other automakers who will offer this interface) has committed to a release date. Hyundai has said that Apple CarPlay will be offered as a delayed option on the 2015 Sonata.
For Android users, Android Auto promises an instantly familiar look and feel, and that's a key benefit of both this interface and Apple CarPlay, says Miles Johnson, manager of Hyundai's Connected Car publicity.
"We've asked our customers, and 15 minutes is about all they'll give to learn a system," he notes.
With your phone plugged into the USB port (required to make the interface work), the Sonata's home screen displays the same Google Now cards with weather and location information you probably already see on your phone. From there, you can access your phone call history, your music library within Google Play and any compatible music and messaging apps you have on your phone. Notably, Spotify and the Whatsapp instant messaging app will be available at launch. The latter is a big deal, says Andrew Brenner, Google's Android Auto project manager, because "younger drivers don't use SMS text messaging anymore."
One of the most striking things about using the Android Auto is its ability to harness the powers of Google's contextual search via voice control. If, for example, you ask about the weather in San Diego, and then casually ask, "How late is the zoo open?" it will immediately bring up business hours for the San Diego Zoo plus a map and give you the option to navigate there. It's a small thing, but not something a factory-installed vehicle navigation system could do on its own. On the flip side, using the GPS signal from the car rather than your phone improves the accuracy of navigation instructions and traffic rerouting.
Google released its API to developers this week, and although any music or messaging app developer can now create apps for Android Auto, they'll be subject to a more rigorous vetting process than ordinary Android apps.
"Each app must be reviewed by a human being," Brenner tells us.
When Android Auto does hit the market, you'll see it in a range of vehicles. Within the Hyundai lineup, it will launch in the Sonata, Azera and Genesis first, as those cars have the company's newest navigation system hardware. Importantly, you won't have to choose between Android Auto and Apple CarPlay: Equipped cars will have both interfaces, and either one will be active depending on what kind of phone you have plugged into the USB port.
Edmunds says: If Android Auto is as slick and quick to process commands as it was in Hyundai's demonstration, Android smartphone users will be very happy when this interface finally hits the market.