Google takes another step toward the release of its in-car infotainment and app integration software with the announcement and release of an Android Auto API. This announcement means that developers can start adapting their apps for the dashboard today. I was able to get some hands-on time with Android Auto from behind the wheel of a 2015 Hyundai Sonata at the Connected Car Expo preceding the 2014 LA Auto Show.
Currently, the API only supports two categories of apps for Android Auto integration, but over a dozen third-party app developers are already onboard with working apps. There are messaging apps including early partners TextMe, textPlus, Kik, and WhatsApp. When demonstrated in the Hyundai, these apps didn't display any text on the screen; rather the body of the message was read aloud by Google's text-to-speech engine. The driver is then given the option to reply via voice, without taking a hand off the steering wheel.
The other supported category is audio apps which enable simple browsing and audio playback from the car. This can include music, podcasts, and news apps. Among the first batch of these apps are iHeartRadio, Joyride, MLB.com, NPR, Pandora, PocketCasts, Songza, SoundCloud, Spotify, Stitcher, and Umano.
In the car, these audio apps look largely identical to one another. Spotify, for example, looks just like Google's first-party Play Music app, but with green accents instead of orange and with a slightly different list of options that slide out from the screen's left edge. Google tells us that it is aiming for consistency and simplicity in Android Auto and that it wants its drivers to always know exactly where the onscreen skip and pause buttons are whether listening to NPR or MLB. This will help them to spend more time with eyes on the road and less time scrutinizing the screen. Additionally, Android Auto will be able to take advantage of steering wheel controls for skipping tracks and voice controls for switching apps.
Via voice, drivers will also be able to initiate voice searches and destination input for Google Maps navigation, listen and reply to incoming text messages, and initiate telephone calls. Being an offshoot of Android 5.0 Lollipop, Android Auto also integrates Google Now contextual voice search and displays a simplified Google Now card interface on its home screen with information about upcoming appointments, current weather, traffic conditions and commute times. The demonstrated voice input had just a bit of lag between speech and recognition, but the accuracy of the voice recognition was excellent even with our demonstrator's Scottish accent, and even when I stumbled over a few words while making requests.
Once it's fully baked and available to the public, end users of Android 5.0 will enable Android Auto by downloading an app from the Google Play Store and then connecting to a compatible automobile or aftermarket car audio receiver via USB. This is similar to how Android Wear users have to download a controller app to feed data to their smartwatches and means that as this app is updated via Google Play, the in-car experience has the potential to update and become more refined.
Hyundai expects to offer this functionality to drivers of the 2015 Hyundai Sonata alongside its upcoming implementation of Apple's CarPlay software, which will give its drivers two cross-platform app-integration options, as well as the built-in first-party BlueLink software's functionality. Honda Motor Co. has also pledged to offer Android Auto in its vehicles starting in 2015.