Android Auto and Android Automotive: What are they and why do they matter?

You might have heard a lot more about Android Automotive recently, thanks to Google’s focus on it at the just concluded I/O 2021.

While at it, I am pretty sure you have previously heard of Android Auto.

The two can be confusing if you are not in the know.

Let’s start here: both are meant to take the technology in our cars, as we know them, to the next level.

While Android Auto has been around for a while now and is becoming almost standard on newer vehicles, Android Automotive is where Google sees the future of its stake in motoring.

Android Auto

Android Auto is, quite simply, a smartphone application that extends some of the features of your smartphone, including apps, to the car.

It does this by mirroring any compatible features to the car’s infotainment unit and presenting them in a way that they are not essentially just blown up phone apps. It presents them in a neat, easy to use way that makes it very easy to navigate around and use while on the road.

Google defines Android Auto as “a platform running on the user’s phone, projecting the Android Auto user experience to a compatible in-vehicle infotainment system over a USB connection”.

What this means is that in addition to what we have now come to understand and accept as standard in-car features like the ability to receive calls straight from the car’s dashboard information and entertainment head unit and playing music (via Bluetooth) on the same unit, one can also access the same music streaming services they have access to on their smartphones. Instead of using a mount on their dashboard so that they can have navigation information from Google Maps or some other app from their phone while driving, they can have this navigation information neatly laid out on the display on their left (in Kenya we drive on the right so…).

And there are some more add-ons. Like access to the same voice assistant that one has on their Android smartphone. In this case, that is the Google Assistant – and it does pretty much everything it would do on the phone. Read out the news, point you to the right spot or route when navigating, play your music or podcast, name it!

To expound on the above, there are three main things one can do using an Android Auto system: communicate, be entertained and navigate.

By mirroring your phone/dialler application in a nice user-friendly interface, one can make and accept as many calls as they want. By taking advantage of the Google Assistant, one can also compose and reply to SMSs, WhatsApp and Telegram messages and more (I only actively use these three).

By making use of any music streaming services they have access to, one can also readily play their favourite tunes on the go. There’s Apple Music, Deezer and Spotify all supported and working well. I have personally had issues getting Deezer to work but Apple Music has been a reliable companion since day 1 with my Android Auto head unit. With Spotify now finally available in Kenya, you can not only play your music but also listen to podcasts – like our own 24Bit podcast.

While Apple Music requires a subscription (though they do offer a generous 1-month trial – 3 months, if you are lucky), Spotify and Deezer have free tiers. I have been using the Spotify free subscription on my Android Auto unit for the last half a year and I’m just fine. If you are a long time user of Spotify, meaning that you have accumulated lots of favourited songs, follow a number of interesting playlists and the legendary Spotify algorithm has mastered your music tastes, you are in for a treat. If you are just starting out on Spotify then some of the limitations that come with the free account like the lack of unlimited skips and rewinds may get to you.

There is also the Google Play Music replacement, YouTube Music, but that, given our location and the regional restrictions that carry over to it from the days of Play Music, might be hard to use. The only good use for it might be for those that don’t subscribe to any music streaming service since it will gladly access and play any locally-stored music files. For this, however, for those that can pay for it, Poweramp does have a good Android Auto integration and I highly recommend it.

Still on entertainment, things like weblink (what you’d want in order to play YouTube videos) and direct video playback, while supported by Android Auto, they are limited by the exact hardware one opts for in the case of an aftermarket head unit and what’s included in cases where Android Auto is provided with the car’s system straight from the manufacturer. The same goes for audio quality (FLAC and all).

When it comes to navigation, Google Maps, which is pre-installed on every Android smartphone that operates with the blessings of Google (i.e. that is Google Play Services certified), is pretty much the go-to option. And, almost always, it delivers. It works fine and is a huge breath of fresh air from the dark days of having to listen to cringeworthy morning FM radio shows just so that you can keep up with the traffic updates as you manoeuvre around Nairobi. However, Google Maps isn’t the only app that offers turn-by-turn navigation on Android Auto. There are other options and, with Google opening up Android Auto to third-party applications, the field will soon be crowded and users will be spoilt for choice.

Previously, pre-Android 11, the Android Auto application used to be a standalone app that one could download from the Google Play Store to their Android smartphone in order to access the aforementioned features. With the release of Android 11, Google made Android Auto part and parcel of the wider Android experience with the app being operated at the system level and, essentially, available on every smartphone out there running the full-fledged Android system (not the Go variation). Google’s Android, if I must add. This is important to know since, while devices like those from Huawei do run Android, it is devoid of Google services and, as such, lacks access to Android Auto.

Android Auto also comes in two ways. Since you get to mirror your smartphone to your car’s infotainment system display unit, that connection can be made either directly, via a cable, or indirectly, wirelessly. The choice of which way your Android smartphone gets to connect with your entertainment head unit is down to the type of head unit you have (older units released before 2020 may not support wireless connectivity thanks to the lack of a network interface).

In Kenya, Android Auto support can be found in several brand new cars from various dealers as well as head units from brands like Kenwood, Pioneer and Sony.

The latter option is what is sensible and accessible to many since the country is a principle used car market and, as such, many of the vehicles that can be found on the roads or in car yards awaiting buyers, are still at least half a decade away from catching up with where the world is in 2021.

Android Automotive

Here is where it gets interesting.

See, with Android Auto, the focus is on the entertainment head unit. Android only covers your car’s infotainment system. Nothing beyond that (well, at least thanks to the efforts of the makers of the various units and a little wiring know-how by yourself – hello, team DIY – or a technician, you can get the media steering controls sorted). And even then, it doesn’t alter anything there, just overlays some more functionality which, depending on where you are and the type of vehicle you have, can be a godsend or just nice to have/complementary.

For instance, for people in countries where cars are usually sold with navigation systems, having Google Maps on Android Auto is great for familiarity’s sake (and it’s usually more user-friendly than most of the stuff car makers have been putting out there). For us in Kenya who tend to buy old (7+ years) cars, it’s a cheap way to try and catch up with the world on our “old new” cars and a great way to get features we don’t normally get, like turn-by-turn navigation and/or internet radio (forget SiriusXM which requires some more hardware to set up, have a look at the radio apps here).

For everything else, you have to fall back to whatever system your car manufacturer is using. That means that your instrument cluster isn’t covered. Heck, some of these carmakers have even used Android (AOSP) for their systems previously (kind of like how we had some TV makers using Android on their TVs long before Android TV, the Android OS specifically tailormade for the big screen, became a thing).

Your automatic rain-sensing wipers? They aren’t managed by Android Auto. The inbuilt maps on your car and navigation system, if any? They are managed by whatever technology your car maker went with. The trip computer? We could go on and on.

What if, the technology the carmaker went with was based on the Android operating system?

That is exactly what Android Automotive is.

Android Automotive at play on the Volvo XC40

Just as we have the standard Android for our phones and tablets and Wear OS for our smartwatches, we now have Android Automotive for our cars. A complete operating system for your car.

Just like the same way the variation of Android on the smartphone you are likely reading this from has been done by your phone’s maker or the way smartwatch makers now finally can add customizations to their Wear OS devices, so is Android Automotive offered to carmakers as a base upon which they can build whatever it is that they want for their in-vehicle infotainment systems.

As is the case currently, and something that Google is hard at work to change, car makers design their own in-car systems and throw in a fork to allow users to also use Android Auto. With Android Automotive, it is The System and there is no need for anything else. Google Maps, for instance, is likely to be front and centre of your car’s maps and navigation system. Need some entertainment? How about downloading some music streaming apps from the Google Play Store?

This, however, comes with a catch. It is only possible if a carmaker chooses to go with the Google Automotive Services (GAS). GAS is to Android Automotive as GAPPs and Google Play services have been to Android. A carmaker can opt to use Android Automotive and not license GAS from Google. That means there will be no Google Maps, Google Assistant or Google Play Store. Basically, the kind of experience that one gets on a smartphone or tablet that is powered by Android, just not Google’s Android (i.e. it runs on AOSP, the Android Open Source Project) with Google apps and services. So, there will be an alternative app store, there will be an alternative maps app (like something from TomTom) and what have you. This is what carmakers will have for cars they intend to sell in China, where Google services are banned.

Your car is essentially running on Android and not having a mirror of your smartphone on the dashboard. This is why you can download any apps meant for it directly. And everything is built around it. Heck, you even get access to almost the same settings like you would on a smartphone or tablet.

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The overall Android Automotive implementation and resultant experience will obviously vary from car to car thanks to the freehand carmakers have in terms of customization and other variations like the case of electric cars where things like Maps will also cover the range and charging stations but, like we have seen with smartphones for over a decade now, the apps and main features will largely be similar across the board.

Android Automotive is still in its early years and we are likely to see many changes to it before it ever becomes something that is a deal-breaker for a car buyer or user in Kenya.

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So popular and widespread in availability is Android Auto that Google recently announced that it was available in over 100 million cars that are currently on the roads with every major carmaker having a hand in the jar.

On the other hand, Android Automotive is just getting started and Google is signing on new partners, making it easy for developers to make apps for both it and Android Auto and incorporating cool new features like using our phones as virtual car keys to access Android Automotive-powered cars.

In the fullness of time, Android Auto will give way to Android Automotive but we are still a long way off.

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com