When making the decision between driving dangerously distracted and simply putting down the phone, more and more behind the wheel are making the sad decision to prioritize their phones. Just one quick text message, a single last check to see what's funny on Reddit...it's a bad habit, and while it seems like putting down the phone would be easy enough, crash reports increasingly show that isn't the case.
There are two solutions, and Google happens to be working on both. The first is to end distracted driving by stopping these people from driving. But, for those of us who don't want a self-driving car just yet, Google has another solution: Android Auto.
Think of Android Auto as Google's way of giving you good reason to put down your phone while you drive. Giving you easy access to the stuff you want (media, messaging, navigation) in a way that allows you to keep driving safely. Rather than trying to shame you or legislate you into putting your phone down, Google is incentivizing you to do the same.
The basic idea is that you connect your phone to your car (right now over USB, but Bluetooth or Wi-Fi are possible for future implementations), and the car gives up its primary infotainment display to the phone. The phone then renders a simplified user interface, something that is easy and safe to use, even while driving.
You're probably skeptical, and I don't blame you, but it's important to know that this isn't a system that's been defined exclusively by Google. Led, yes, but in partnership with the 40 current members of the Open Auto Alliance, of which General Motors was one of the leading players. As such, GM (and the other auto marques), had a big say in what the net result looks like.
Phil Abram, GM's Chief Infotainment Officer, told me a bit about the process: "We've worked a lot with Google on what are the guidelines that they are going to be using. It's unlike an Android handset in terms of do whatever you want with your user experience. They have some templated approaches to how they display media types. That's why they limited it to media to start with...a very small ability to differentiate, because that standard template meets the driver distraction guidelines."
The guidelines are the important bit. There are standards and regulations used by auto manufacturers internationally dictating what is and is not allowed when it comes to distracting the driver. These guidelines have been developed over decades of rigorous lab testing, using things like occlusion glasses that only let lab volunteers see for two seconds or less before going dark. The basic idea: the dashboard task has to be simple enough to complete in that time or it is rejected.
Android Auto has passed all these tests, just like Apple's CarPlay. However, where Apple is locking down its platform, only allowing certain, hand-picked developers to extend it, Google is actively encouraging any and everybody to extend their apps to work in Android Auto. That's where the templates that GM's Abram mentioned comes in.
Basically, Google has defined what a "media" app should look like in Android Auto. Developers can pipe in any media they like -- podcasts, streaming music, real-time ukelele concertos -- but, those devs don't have much control over the user interface. There's a reason why Play Music on Android Auto looks a lot like Spotify, which also looks like iHeartRadio and all the rest. They're all using the same template. Developers can change button labels, provide logos, and of course change the color scheme, but that's about it.
This is more open than Apple's solution, but far more restrictive than the other competing platform, MirrorLink. MirrorLink allows developers to do basically whatever they want -- but, their apps must go through a detailed certification process before they're approved for use within the car. This adds a lot of complexity to the process, and complexity means extra cost.
Google wanted to put some power in the hands of developers, but not burden them with having to learn the various international regulations for allowable in-vehicle interfaces. Patrick Brady, Engineering Director at Google, says that was a major focus. "It was absolutely a deliberate choice for Android Auto where we could ensure safety and make sure that app developers can still get their brand and their custom features out there, but not be burdened with worrying about there being enough contrast between the background color and the font, and that their font meets the ISO standards, and that there aren't too many menu items. I think we've found a good balance here."
The templates may be restrictive, but Brady says that's a good thing. "As an app developer, first going into it, you think that you want full control over the UI and you want to be able to do anything you want. And then you realize that you need to make this work in an touchscreen interface in a Honda or a Volkswagen, as well as an Audi MMI-based interface, and you realize the screens are going to be a different distance from the user, and so you might need to use a larger or smaller font. And you need to go through driver distraction testing. You need to make sure that it feels like it's part of every car. That's an impossible ask of developers."
The templates Google has defined, then, do away with that complexity. As of now, only media apps and messaging apps are allowed, the latter being almost entirely voice-driven. More templates for application types will come in the future, but Google will be very strict about the nature of those templates. So, if you're worried about someone writing an app that plays distracting video or porting Flappy Bird to the dashboard, hopefully those fears are now assuaged.
And, if you're worried about having to choose your next car based on whether it supports CarPlay or Android Auto (or, indeed, MirrorLink), you needn't lose any sleep there, either. The Blue Chevy Spark that GM was using to demonstrate Android Auto was the same exact car that was at WWDC a few weeks ago running CarPlay. It's just as happy running one system as the other.
Indeed, behind the scenes, the two platforms are quite similar, so implementing both is little more complicated than doing one or the other. GM's Abram again: "It's not that difficult to do if you think about it ahead of time. There are a lot of commonalities between the two in terms of the physical interface and the hardware parts, which is the tricky things to change."
You can be sure that every auto manufacturer is at least thinking about it now, and while there will certainly be some that choose only one (Ferrari, with Apple's Eddy Cue on the board, will likely be slow to swing around to Android Auto), within a few years support for these systems will be less a novelty, and more expected functionality. Maybe then, finally, people will put down their phones and drive.