Android Automotive: How some automakers are upping their infotainment game

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General Motors’ 2023 Cadillac Lyriq premium electric crossover will launch with the full Android Automotive infotainment system, as will several of the automakers’ upcoming vehicles. Cadillac

Google’s Android operating system is best known for powering over 80% of smartphones worldwide. Android Auto and Android Automotive are related Google products, but are offshoots designed to allow drivers to access their content through their car’s touchscreen.

Whether it’s messaging services, music streaming, social media or automotive infotainment, the internet giant’s consumer products can be confusing.

What is Google Android?

The Android operating system is open source, which means it’s available for anyone to download and build for a myriad of apps. The most common use it in phones and tablets, but it has also been used for June countertop smart ovens, Peloton exercise bikes and cars. The beauty of open source software is that Google can authorize use but doesn’t have to provide official support.

While Android has made its way into automotive dashboards, there isn’t much synchronicity between it and the version designed for mobile devices.

In 2015, Google launched Android Auto. Android Auto and the very similar Apple CarPlay are not full-fledged operating systems. Both systems can act more like a device driver allowing the smartphone to interact with the infotainment system. A device driver generally acts as a translation layer between an external device to work with a computer. For example, a mouse, trackpad, or trackball all provide the same basic functionality when plugged into a computer: the user can move the cursor around the screen and select different items. However, each has a unique physical interface.

In the world of cars, touchscreens, rotary controls, touchpads, steering wheel buttons, and other devices are used to control on-screen functions. Android Auto takes the multiple signals and translates them into a single common command that the phone understands. The phone then projects data from approved apps, such as maps or audio, onto the screen.

Apple CarPlay Toyota vehicle
Many drivers use a cord or Bluetooth connection to pair their phone to the car’s infotainment system so they can easily access their phone’s content (Apple CarPlay shown). Toyota

What is the difference between Android Auto and Apple CarPlay?

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay each have proprietary graphics layouts that look different from each other but operate pretty much the same. For example, all audio apps play through a common pattern, so the driver doesn’t have to search, whether they’re using Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music or Pocket Casts.

Android Auto or CarPlay requires a phone to be present and paired with the car. Early implementations required a USB cable, but many vehicles now support wireless connectivity.

What is Android Automotive?

In 2017, Google launched a separate entity from Android Auto called Android Automotive. It is a complete operating system optimized to power vehicle infotainment systems. Android Automotive competes with Linux or QNX, systems that have had a stronghold in the infotainment industry for the past decade. More and more car manufacturers are migrating to Android Automotive, including Volvo Car Group, Renault, Stellantis (formerly Decree Chrysler) and General Motors. Ford will make the switch in 2023.

But until recently, some automakers only used parts of Android Automotive.

In the world of wearable devices, Google offers proprietary, closed-source software called Google Mobile Services (GMS) that can be bundled with Android. This product contains Play Store, Contacts, Maps, Gmail as well as Google Assistant, and must be licensed by Google.

Some device manufacturers choose to forego GMS. Most notably, Amazon’s Fire tablets, which have corresponding apps and services created by Amazon. In China, where Google chooses not to do business, Chinese phone makers are also offering their own version.

In the vehicle space, there is Google Automotive Services (GAS), which is a package similar to GMS that includes store, maps and calendar. Stellantis built its Uconnect 5 infotainment system on Android Automotive, but opted to use TomTom maps and Amazon Alexa voice services instead of GMS.

2021 Polestar 2
The 2021 Polestar 2 uses a vertical screen to display and control its Android Automotive infotainment platform which bundles Google Automotive services. Alex Kwanten

Android car integration

As much as phone makers create their own look and feel for Android to create a distinct personality for a Samsung phone versus a phone made by Google or LG, the same goes for automakers. This year, the Polestar 2 premium electric sedan launched its own version of Android Automotive with GAS. Polestar, which is tied to Volvo, uses a vertical screen to display the system. GM’s take on Android Automotive uses landscape-oriented screens.

The first GM vehicles to reach customers with Android Automotive are its 2022 Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban as well as the Yukon from its GMC luxury division. Many more will arrive in the coming months, including the refreshed Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks, the super-pricey Hummer EV pickup and SUV, and the high-end Cadillac Lyriq electric crossover.

The infotainment screen inside the 2022 Tahoe isn’t much different from the 2021 version. It features multiple pages of eight-icon grids with shortcuts anchored vertically to the left edge. Icons include Google Maps, Google Assistant, and Google Play Store, which offers the option to sign in with a Google account.

Once connected, the driver can download approved Android apps such as NPR One, Spotify, Tidal, Hoopla, Libby and PocketCasts. These download and run directly in the infotainment without requiring a phone. Logging in to individual apps syncs data with corresponding accounts.

2021 Chevrolet Tahoe
The 2022 Chevrolet Tahoe uses a more traditional landscape-oriented screen. Alex Kwanten

How well does the Google Assistant feature work?

Drivers are likely to find any of the current or upcoming Android Automotive-based infotainment systems superior to what automakers have already delivered. The GM Android Automotive interface works well, is easy to use and is very responsive. Google Assistant is arguably the best digital voice assistant between itself, Siri and Amazon Alexa.

Google Assistant is activated by pressing the touchscreen, a button on the steering wheel or “Hey Google”. Previous generations of in-car speech recognition had limited vocabularies and often required a sequence of commands to enter a destination, but Google Assistant is getting closer to natural language capability. Since he uses Google, he can find destinations by any known alias or nickname (“Go to Ren Cen” brought directions to GM’s headquarters building at the Renaissance Center in Detroit).

The assistant also controls other vehicle functions such as the air conditioning. “Hey Google, I’m cold” will raise the temperature a few degrees while “My feet are cold” will redirect warm air to the lower vents. The Assistant will also play music from installed apps, and users with smart home devices will be able to connect to garage door openers, lights or thermostats.

For iPhone users, nothing in Android Automotive prevents the use of Apple devices. Polestar 2 launched without Apple CarPlay support, but compatibility is expected to arrive soon via an over-the-air update. GM’s implementation offered wireless CarPlay support from day one.

What’s the downside of Android Automotive?

The only real potential downside to Android Automotive is privacy. Google also collects location data and other information about vehicle use. However, automakers collect the same data for their own internal use, and anyone who uses Chrome, Android, or just Google Search is likely to fall victim to the same type of tracking. Apple also collects data through the CarPlay interface although there is less access than Google.

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