Earlier this year, at the I/O developer conference, Google showed off a few enhancements to its Android Auto platform, the extension to the Android mobile operating system that allows the phone to take over a car's infotainment system. Today, those updates are available for download.
If you haven't used it before, Android Auto is basically a simplified version of Android that displays on a modern car's central screen. From there, you can use Google Maps for navigation, listen to and respond (by voice) to Hangouts messages and even have your media streamed -- so long as you use a compatible app like Spotify or Pandora.
The catch? You had to have a compatible car. While there are presently over 200 models on sale worldwide and 50 manufacturers that support Android Auto, that's just a tiny fraction all models on sale today -- and it doesn't scratch the surface of all cars already on the road.
Thankfully, that changes today. With the latest update to Android Auto you can now run the interface directly on your phone. Simply launch the app and it now immediately sends you into a downsized version of the Android Auto interface that lets you use it whenever and wherever. And, cleverly, you can set Android Auto to auto-launch when your phone connects to your car's Bluetooth.
Once launched, you can do everything here that you can through the full-fledged implementation, including running all the same third-party apps -- none of which needed modification from their developers. All the same voice recognition works, too, so you can say things like "Take me home," "Take me to the closest coffee shop," "Play Jim James" or "Call Amanda."
Using Android Auto on your phone is far less distracting than just loading up Google Maps, as it will suppress most of the distracting app notifications that lure your eyes from the road. However, there's a catch: legality. Right now, when run through your in-car navigation system, Android Auto is legal in all 50 states. But, touching your phone while driving is illegal in most, despite the mobile interface of Android Auto still providing the same basic interface.
So, unless you have a car that can trigger phone voice commands via button on the steering wheel (many do), you'll still legally have to pull over to enter a new destination or choose another playlist. That is, until Android Auto gets fully hands-free "Okay, Google" voice activation -- which I'm told is just a few weeks away.
That's the bad news, but there's some more good news. Android Auto itself has received a few significant updates, regardless of how you run it. The biggest? You can now sort and skip through lengthy lists. Before, if you tried to access any list longer than a few items, like perhaps all of your favorite albums, you could only access the top few. Now, Android Auto lets you dig deep into those lists by selecting the first letter of the desired album.
This "alpha jump" feature sounds like a small thing, but it will make apps like Spotify far easier to use. Unfortunately, you'll have to wait a little longer for another eagerly awaited feature: Waze. That app was also promised earlier this year at I/O and is, indeed, coming soon -- but not just yet.
"We'll release it as soon as possible," Patrick Brady, director of engineering for Android at Google, told me. "It's pretty great," he added, noting that a lot of folks at Google are using it already. That information, I'm sorry to say, won't make the waiting any easier for the rest of us.