Here's everything we know about Android Automotive in the Polestar 2

The fully electric 2021 Polestar 2 will be the first vehicle to get the full Google Play Services blessing and Android Automotive treatment when it begins production in 2020.

Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
  • North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
Antuan Goodwin
8 min read

The upcoming Polestar 2 will be the second model from the Volvo-spinoff Polestar premium electrified vehicle brand, but will be its first mass-produced, fully electric model after the limited edition Polestar 1 hybrid.

The P2 will also be one of the first vehicles to feature the all-new Google-powered Android Automotive OS infotainment experience in its dashboard. Sounds impressive, right? But what does that mean exactly?

What is Android Automotive OS?

Simply put, Android Automotive OS is a new version of the Android operating system for use in the vehicles. Where Android Auto lives on the user's phone and is merely projected onto a dashboard display, Android Automotive is an operating system that lives in the car itself and works independently whether there's a phone connected or not. Think Samsung or LG's Android-powered smart refrigerators , but on wheels. And less dumb…

Of course, it's a tad more complex than that and we'll dig into the nuances shortly, but that's the basic idea.

Android Auto? Android Automotive? Aren't those names a bit confusing?



Android Automotive may sound a lot like Android Auto, but it's a fundamentally different approach to an app-based dashboard.


What advantage does one offer over the other?

Because Android Auto lives on the phone in your pocket, the entire experience comes with you from vehicle to vehicle. For those who drive a different car every week -- users of car-sharing services, frequent travelers and automotive journalists, for example -- it's great because after sitting down in an Android Auto-compatible car, you just plug into USB and click "confirm" and all of your podcasts, playlists, contacts, navigation settings and destinations are projected in the dashboard the same as they were in the last car.

However, Android Auto has disadvantages for the rest of you who drive the same car every day. For starters, being powered by phone apps can hamper the in-car experience with compromises that developers make to get those apps to run well on a wide variety of smartphones and specs.

I met with Android Automotive Lead Product Manager Haris Ramic, who explained, "When you're developing for mobile, you're constantly thinking about battery management. 'Am I consuming too much battery?' So, things like GPS, for example, update very irregularly, which impacts the mapping experience while you're driving. The developer has to ask, 'Why am I polling for GPS this way? Because it's a phone? And which kind of phone?'"

Because Android Automotive lives permanently in a car, its apps can be optimized around more generous power requirements and hardware that is specific to the vehicle. Ramic goes on to say that an onboard navigation app can ping GPS more frequently without worrying about killing a phone's precious battery and offer even more accurate positioning in, say, a parking garage or tunnel by using data pulled from the car's ground speed sensors and compass to dead-reckon its location. Apps can be optimized to behave consistently whether or not there's an internet connection -- perhaps by caching offline data or music in the vehicle's onboard storage -- and can even take advantage of multiple displays or input methods. Google Maps, for example, can also display a live map in the Polestar 2's digital instrument cluster.


Being a permanent part of the vehicle means that Android Automotive OS can integrate seamlessly with the car's hardware.


Android Automotive's permanence means that the software ties closely into bespoke vehicle functions in ways that Android Auto's simple single screen projection can't. Anyone who's ever used Android Auto knows that the neglected fifth icon on its bottom bar -- where vehicle-specific apps are supposed to live -- is really only used to leave the Android Auto sandbox to access the rest of the car's infotainment functions. Android Automotive is the onboard infotainment, so climate controls, audio settings, vehicle options, even battery and range data for an EV are all integrated, which makes the entire interface more consistent and safer to use on the road.

"For example, with the Polestar 2, we take into consideration the charge level as well as the battery's performance and we can merge that with a mapping data and assure that you'll have enough charge for a point A to point B experience. It is an electric car and some drivers still have range anxiety and this can help those people," Ramic explains. "We're definitely building on our knowledge from Android Auto, but our point is to make it as seamless as we can so people are not constantly flipping between the two systems."

Does that mean there's a little Polestar climate control app running in 2's dashboard?

Yep, and it could even be updated over the air or through Google Play Services, if the automaker decided to go that route. Like we've already seen with Tesla, the idea of vehicle software updates opens some interesting possibilities.

Ramic speculated that the climate control interface that the Polestar 2 launches with could be significantly different a year later. New modes could be added, the organization of menus or onscreen buttons could be changed and the in-car experience could get better over time based on customer feedback. It could also get worse or more confusing if the automaker changes too much too quickly, but that's the chance you take with any updatable software.


Driver profiles allow different users to keep all of their apps, preferences and accounts separated. 


How do driver profiles work with Android Automotive?

We heard a lot about Google Assistant during the I/O 2019 keynote this week. The AI-powered voice assistant is a big part of Google's current strategy, so it's no surprise that the "Hey, Google" query is a big part of Android Automotive's promise.

Polestar 2 drivers will be able to use Google Assistant commands to take advantage of Android Automotive's connections with the vehicle's hardware to, for example, adjust the climate controls or tune the radio to a selected station. Assistant will also be able to select destinations for navigation, send text messages or initiate calls, save memos and reminders, get answers to questions and access all of the services and smart home integrations that you could get on your phone.

A complex request like, "Hey, Google, remind me to grab milk on the way home tomorrow" made using a Google Nest Hub in the morning could result in a prompt on the car's display when you start it after work and a suggestion to navigate to a market between the office and home.But, with Google Assistant getting more and more customized this year, it's important that Android Automotive knows that you're you, so your family members don't get reminders to do your chores when they borrow the car.

Ramic said, "The Polestar 2 can use a Bluetooth-paired smartphone as a key to identify the driver, unlock the doors and start the car, so Android Automotive can use that same Bluetooth-paired smartphone to distinguish you from a spouse or housemate that shares the car. It could also use a conventional smart key fob to differentiate drivers or allow users to manually toggle profiles via an onscreen menu. Each of those profiles will have its own onboard apps with their own settings. One user might see Spotify and NPR in their source list while another sees YouTube Music when they're behind the wheel and both will have different saved destinations and vehicle settings."


The Polestar 2 features a digital instrument cluster that is also powered by Android Automotive OS and Google Maps. This dual-screen setup wouldn't be possible with the current Android Auto tech.


Because these apps are separate from the ones on the phone, users will need to log in to them again in the car. Google is encouraging simplified logins where, for example, the app in the car displays a unique short PIN you enter in an app on your phone to sync an account without having to type your hard-to-guess 24 character password with special characters. Ramic tells me that the process is very similar to logging into YouTube or Hulu on an Xbox or Android TV .

What if I don't want to log in?

Of course, Google would prefer that you log in to get access to all of its fancy recommendations, cloud-stored preferences and user customization, but the Polestar 2 and other vehicles that use Android Automotive software don't require an account and will feature a Guest account that saves no data.

Offline Android Automotive should work almost exactly the same without logging in. Most of the vehicle apps should work, the air conditioner will still blow cool air and many of the third-party apps should work independently of a Google account. Voice commands will also still be accessible. Ramic joked, "You won't be able to say, 'Navigate home' because it won't know where your home is, but you should still be able to say navigate to a specific [place] and get where you're going."

This separation is important for Android Automotive in markets where Google Services are not available. A vehicle that's sold and driven in China -- where Google Play Services is not available -- would need the freedom to adopt region-specific apps for navigation, messaging or voice command or use a different carrier for software updates. The open-source roots of Android mean that a Polestar 2 rolling around the US could feature Google Maps, Messenger and Spotify while another future Android Automotive vehicle in China might use Baidu Maps, WeChat and QQ Music. It'll be interesting to see if or how the Chinese-produced Polestar 2's dashboard might differ in its home country.

What will Android Automotive apps look like?

With Android Auto, Spotify looks exactly the same whether you're in a or an . And Spotify looks a lot like YouTube Music which looks a lot like Audible Audiobooks. Thanks to specific design guidelines and strict media templates that fit Google's Material Design standards, the Android Auto interface is consistent from car to car and, from app to app, the play button is always where you expect it to be. This aids muscle memory and reduces distraction.


Automakers and app developers have a bit more leeway when designing Android Automotive apps, but there are still standards and guidelines for safety.


Design guidelines are still around for Android Automotive. However, the automaker has more freedom in deciding what those media templates look like. Polestar's designers, for example, don't have to stick to Material Design standards and can pick typefaces, colors or button shapes that will best integrate with the overall design of the Polestar 2 specifically. The automaker has control over how design elements are laid out on the 2's vertical screen and what information is displayed. The concept of media templates is still there, so the Polestar's play button for Pocketcasts will be in the same place it is for Pandora. However, both apps might look slightly different in, say, a future Android Automotive-powered .

App design for Android Automotive also has to tackle a wider range of challenges than Android Auto. For example, the aforementioned sign-in screens and menus specific to managing offline content, for example, are new challenges that Google, adopting automakers and app developers will need to work to address.

When does it get here?

I should point out that Android Automotive isn't even the first implementation of Android for cars. Automakers have been bending Google's mobile OS to their needs for nearly a decade now. Honda's current-generation HondaLink infotainment system, for example, is powered by a heavily customized version of Android 4.x Jellybean. If you swipe deep enough into the menus of certain models, you can even find the stock Android calculator and settings apps hiding. And there are countless other vehicles on the road that don't advertise Android in their dashboards.

2021 Polestar 2

The fully electric 2021 Polestar 2 will be the first vehicle to get the full Google Play Services blessing and Android Automotive treatment when it begins production in 2020, featuring an 11-inch infotainment in its dashboard, the Google Play Store serving up apps and Google Assistant serving as a sort of cloud-based concierge.

In the meantime, developers interested in engineering apps for upcoming vehicles featuring Android Automotive can check out Google's Android Developers site for details. For those interested developing for the Polestar 2 specifically, Polestar also has its own developers' portal at https://developer.polestar.com/.