My Android phone is, in fact, so old that it's not compatible with Android Auto. So in addition to a Sonata, Hyundai let me borrow a Nexus 5 smartphone and a Motorola Moto360 watch. Yet even with all that gear, which, in practical terms is someone else's borrowed digital life, Android Auto still showed itself to be tech worth having.
When you start the Sonata you get the standard Hyundai infotainment screen. Plug your phone in, and you'll get an option to click over to Android Auto. At that point, you lose the ability to use your phone, which is the purpose of the system, to keep you from using the handset. Since the contents of your phone are ported to the head unit, there is hardly any reason to reach for the portable device anyway.
The Google Now screen comes up first, populated with a series of notifications resulting from Google having learned your life and kept track of where you've been going, who you've been calling, and what you've been searching for. After only two days, Google Now understood that I probably lived in Venice, CA, and not in Orange County, where the phone had previously resided.
No matter the make of car, the interface is the same. The icons along the bottom of the screen indicate Navigation, Phone, Home (Google Now), Audio, and Return – to go back to the car's native interface. The first four options represent much of what we use our phones for (we'll get to texting in a second), and that's what buyers want: for cars to work seamlessly with their phones. Oh, and to have voice recognition actually be useful.
Android Auto works with the Hyundai system, so if music is playing when you turn the car on, it will continue to play even though you're in Android Auto, and you can control it through that interface. Switching to media or apps on your phone is as easy as saying, "Play music," which defaults to Google Play, or pressing the audio button and choosing an app like JoyRide or NPR One.
You do have to figure out how to speak to the system. I couldn't find any list of Android Auto-specific voice commands, so sometimes it would take a few tries to figure out how Google liked to be ordered around. Once, when I couldn't get it to understand an address, I used the Hyundai navigation system instead while still playing Android Auto media. The next time it happened, I got smart and spoke the navigation into the watch, which understood the address, and sent the nav instructions to the head unit through the phone. While I could get scores for American sports, I couldn't ever get it to tell me who won a recent Formula One race. And while I could get it to set reminders, I never figured out how to set up a calendar event.
One of my favorite features was the ease of sending and receiving text messages. Any message that Google can understand, it can send. When you receive a message, a notification pops up at the top of the screen, you press it, and Android Auto reads it aloud. To reply, just say, "Reply," and say what you've got to say. It will even do emoticons. It's great.
Unexpectedly, it was the watch that clinched it for me. Connected to the phone and therefore the car, the Moto360 works as a phone on the wrist, allowing me to do numerous things with voice commands that saved me from having to get my phone out when I was away from the car, including sending and receiving text messages. If my digital wanderings required a larger screen I could swipe the information over to the phone and pick up the trail there. Sure, you need to choose your moments to speak to your wrist – but once chosen, it's worth it.
Although Android Auto has rolled out first, we suspect that Hyundai will soon announce support for Apple CarPlay as well. And other makers will, likewise, support both. Another valuable proposition with Hyundai's implementation of Android Auto will be that in the future, it will be offered on the Display Audio head unit showed off earlier this year at CES (a unit that showcased Apple CarPlay, by the way), bringing the feature to lower-priced Sonata trim levels and packages. When that happens, buyers will be able to get a modern suite of integrated tech applications without having to purchase the top-tier OEM package that comes bundled with the fanciest head unit and other luxury features. Android Auto will be offered on the mid-grade Sonata trim, so on the Sonata tester I drove, for instance, a buyer could have saved $3,500 by skipping the Tech Package.
The ultimate expression of Android Auto is in being able to close the last huge hole that keeps us from completely syncing our everyday lives: the hours we spend in our car. My life, however, has too many other holes to make that feasible. If I 'lived' in Android, it would have even more to offer me. After a few hours spent searching for televisions on Google one evening, for instance, Best Buy showed up as one of the suggested nearby destinations while I was on my way to Dairy Queen.
To make sure I'm not simply enamored of this new, shiny thing, I asked Andy Gryc, the content conference director of the LA Auto Show's Connected Car Expo, what he thought of Android Auto and the coming systems. He said, "I think Android Auto will be incredibly influential in infotainment. The automakers desperately need seamless mobile integration, customer-friendly brands, and deep software competency, and Google is a powerhouse in all three. It's hard to underestimate the sea change that this will have across existing infotainment designs."
My thoughts exactly.