​Android Auto is finally here, and with it a new era

Smartphones and cars can focus on what each one does best with the arrival of this new dashboard connection technology.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, Smart home, Digital health Credentials
  • 5G Technician, ETA International
Brian Cooley
3 min read

Watch this: Android ​Auto ​a​rrives

Hyundai has become the first carmaker to ship Google's new smartphone connection software, starting with 2015 Sonatas that have factory nav. It's arriving in those cars in three ways: Cars coming to dealers now already have it installed, the 2015 Sonata you currently own can be updated by the dealer right now, and later this summer you can download and install the upgrade yourself. There is no charge for the software in any scenario.

What it does

Android Auto integrates the services of your Android phone that are relevant to driving -- Navigation, Media, Communication -- within the car's dashboard LCD and voice-command system while blanking out your phone's screen and its scads of apps that can wait 'til later.

Of all the services presented, the most important is Google Maps and its turn-by-turn directions, which have already changed the way we get around. But it's surprising how much better it is with a larger, fixed screen and dedicated voice-command button. I was pleased to find that response and processing time were just as fast as on my Nexus 5 phone directly. The apps and processing still run on the phone; Android Auto is largely a projection technology that filters, reshapes and presents services on the car's screen.

Android Auto doesn't just give you Google services: iHeart Radio, Spotify and TuneIn get access to the Media screen, though Pandora is still pending. Messages from SMS, Google Hangouts, Skype and a few others populate the Communication screen. None of these services look much different from the others, per the rules of Android Auto: Use primarily voice and audio interaction, and when the drivers does use the screen they should be able to utilize the same muscle memory for any service within a group.

Google Now comes into its own in the dash via Android Auto Hyundai

How you use it

Connect your phone running Android version 5.0 or higher via a cable -- no wireless connection is supported yet -- and you'll be prompted to install the free Android Auto app the first time. It's basically an invisible conduit between phone and car. Then press the new Android Auto button that appears on your car's touchscreen and your phone will go blank while the car's screen transforms into a version of Google Now, showing simple panes of information relevant to getting around: weather, recent calls, next appointment in your calendar, and easy click to drive there. You won't see a typical phone home screen, settings or notifications: this is about less distraction, not just repackaging it.

There is also a button to go back to Hyundai nav, media and calling technologies which you will find important if you want navigation while outside of wireless data coverage or want to listen to broadcast radio or a CD.

Android Auto looks and feels quite different from your phone's software, yet isquickly familiar. If you have any facility at all with your phone you should be up and running in a minute or two with no special swipes or complicated submenus to learn. A long press on the steering wheel voice button sends your commands to Android's excellent voice recognition with interactions that are usually more nuanced and accurate the first time than from any carmaker's voice system after several tries.

Here's what you'll need to upgrade your 2015 Sonata

2015 Hyundai Sonata with navigation
4GB or larger USB drive to download the update
Smartphone running Android 5.0 or later
A USB-to-Micro-USB cable
Free Android Auto firmware update download from MyHyundai.com
A little patience until the download is posted later this summer

Why it's significant

Hyundai has been refreshingly candid about the auto industry's inability to do mobile better than the mobile industry. They are far from the only carmaker to sign up for Android Auto, but they are the first to put productioin where their deal-signing pen is.

When the similar Apple CarPlay arrives in showrooms soon, on Hyundais and many other cars, it will do even more of the heavy lifting needed to raise consumer awareness about these technologies. Both will need explaining to millions of car owners who think they already have "smartphone integration," thanks to Bluetooth calling. They are in for a pleasant surprise.