Editors' note: This article has been updated to reflect further information about Android Auto.
Judging from Google's onstage demonstration of the new Android Auto at its I/O 2014 developer conference, Android users can expect an easy, smooth navigation experience. Other features include music playback and messaging, with a potential for many more apps to come from third-party developers.
Android Auto has nothing to do with embedding an Android operating system in a car's dashboard. Rather, it uses the phone as the computing platform, and the car's LCD and controls as the interface. To integrate with the car, a driver will need to plug an Android phone in to the car's USB port, and pair it through Bluetooth.
Most of the features will be controlled through Google Voice, with voice command processing done by your phone. Instead of an icon-based interface, as CarPlay uses, Android Auto relies on panels of what it considers relevant information. There are icons at the bottom of the screen, however, working as shortcuts to navigation, phone, and audio.
The most successful feature of Android Auto appears to be navigation, traditionally Google's strong suit. Using a voice command activated from a button in a car, the demonstrator asked Google Voice for the opening hours of the de Young Museum here in San Francisco. After Voice replied through the car's speakers, the demonstrator simply had to say "navigate there" to bring up Google Maps with turn-by-turn directions to an edifying afternoon of fine art.
The maps and directions, calculated in the cloud and received by the Android phone, showed up on the car's LCD.
One of the most impressive aspects of Android Auto navigation is that the demonstrator did not need to say a street address. This feature should also work well with contacts stored in a phone with associated addresses, letting you say "navigate to Joe's house" as easily as you currently can say "call Joe" to initiate a phone call in a car. Obviously, this feature will require Google to actually be able to find the places you ask for, and have a correct street address associated.
As with current Google Maps, Android Auto will be able to show traffic information.
Google showed off the audio integration with a demonstration of Play Music, the company's online music service. The onstage demonstrator was able to use Google Voice to request specific songs and play lists, and also use the graphic interface on the car's touchscreen. The now-playing screen shows song information with a smart graphic treatment. This playback interface should also support locally stored music libraries.
Android Auto will be open to developers. One example is the popular Internet radio app TuneIn Radio, an icon of which appeared during the keynote speech. Developers will be able to add Android Auto integration to their music apps.
Although Google didn't demonstrate it, Android Auto will certainly support initiating and answering phone calls with Google Voice. Instead, the company showed off its messaging capabilities, with the demonstrator receiving a text message, read out loud by Auto, then dictating a reply. There was no visual element to the text messaging other than a notification that a new message had come in -- obviously a safety feature.
Third-party developer support
Given the limited features Google demonstrated for Android Auto's first public airing, the system looks like it will live or die based on developer support. Google announced the Android Auto SDK, which will let developers customize their apps for use in cars. In a follow-up conversation, Audi's chief architect of Infotainment Systems, Mathias Halliger, said that automakers would get final say on which apps are approved for use in their cars. Apps could also be designed for specific makes and models.
Automakers from Bentley to Kia are onboard to add the Android Auto system to their cars. Google promises the first cars offering Android Auto will be available by the end of this year. Given the relatively slow pace of model updates in the automotive industry, expect new cars supporting Android Auto to trickle out in subsequent years.