Android Auto Is About to Get a New Look - Many of Them, Actually
Over spring break, my family went skiing in Breckenridge. We flew into Denver and drove the rest of the way to get there, saving a bunch of money and giving me the exciting chance to pilot a top-of-the-line Cadillac Escalade. The first thing I did after getting into the car was connect my phone so I could hijack the big touchscreen and have my own Google Maps for navigation.
Switching back and forth from Android Auto to the native Cadillac Cue experience could best be described as jarring. Two different worldviews of design, coexisting poorly. Different icons. Different visual styles. Different everything. You may enjoy my Strangelovian rant from 2014 when Google first introduced Android Auto.
With that in mind, Google I/O, Google’s annual developer conference at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, is in full swing.
So what’s new with respect to Android Auto? Customization.
The current Android Auto is a one-size-fits-all solution. Your phone projects one thing to your car, regardless of what kind of car you’re driving.
Clearly, the “branding police” at the car manufacturers had a nice yell at Google, because they don’t want drivers to have the aforementioned jarring experience of switching back and forth from Android Auto to the native UI, nor do they want to all look like each other. Above and below are two concept car photos that Google released of a next-gen Volvo and next-gen Audi cockpit that give you an idea of how a new Android Auto might be implemented.
The livestream slides were good enough to show us some of the details for what they’re doing.
Here, you can see, for Chrysler, that Android Auto’s bottom buttons will be merged with Chrysler’s U-Connect buttons. For Audi, the Android Auto buttons move to the left and adopt Audi’s styling. For Volvo, Android Auto features become nothing more than new tabs on the Sensus panel.
This will make the branding people happy, but will it make me happy the next time I rent a car and have to deal with yet another poorly designed automobile center stack? The answer seems to be a solid “maybe.” Google’s speaker at one point specifically talked about jumping into a rental car and away you go, but Android Auto will wear the automaker’s “skin” — whether you want it to or not. You can see this, in schematic form in the diagram below, how the navigation app will radically change its presentation depending on the car.
Last year, Google described only a handful of ways for building Android Auto apps. They offered templates with stripped-down support for music apps, text messaging apps and … that’s about it. Do you want to do a full-screen app? No soup for you. Now, Google is indeed supporting full-screen apps, but it’s clear that it’ll strongly discourage such things, noting at one point that “it’s a complex and expensive endeavor” to build a full-screen UI that satisfies safety-related regulatory requirements (distraction times, etc.). Left unsaid, Google will probably put up major roadblocks between prospective full-screen app developers and the app store.
What’s new then?
You can tell where Google’s trying to nudge its developers by what gear it’s giving them as a freebie. This year’s freebie is a Google Home, a competitor to Amazon’s Alexa and Echo products. Suffice to say Google is going whole hog into speech interaction and its wants to do it everywhere: on your phone, in your house, in your car, they’re offering a bunch of new APIs for developers to wire themselves into the “Google Assistant” ecosystem.
This is no small feat. Google is pushing a lot of developer-facing features here, including authentication and payment. One of its demos showed ordering a lunch delivery from Panera Bread. At one point in the Android Auto talk, the speaker suggested you might say, “Ok Google, entertain my kids,” and it would then provide “age appropriate” content, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Another speaker suggested how she looked forward to saying, “Ok Google, turn on the dining room lights,” when she got home. The presenters even called this system “your best co-pilot.”
Histrionics aside, it makes a lot of sense for app developers to support speech interaction, and it’s a good thing to do this in the car for things that don’t really need to have buttons on the screen. This also means new speech-related features will appear all the time, on an independent schedule from anything the automaker or Android Auto teams might be planning.
Speech interfaces for cars have a tortured history. Before our daughter was born, we traded in my wife’s two-door Acura Integra for a four-door Acura TL, which was pretty much the most gadget-centric car of 2005. (It was also one of the few sedans at the time that money could buy with a manual transmission, which we insisted upon to assuage our fleeting youth.) That car tried to do voice recognition for all sorts of things, and it only vaguely worked. My wife ignored it. I used it sparingly.
Google’s TensorFlow AI superbrain and third-party API integration promise us that this time, for sure, voice interaction will be awesome.
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A couple updates, based on a few things I misunderstood when writing the original article. So far as I can tell, Volvo and Audi are actually running Android in the car itself. The car has its own connection to the Internet. Navigation and such are running natively, inside the car. This means that Audi and Volvo have ported their software to run above the Android platform. What's neat about this is that it's still the same Android Auto under the hood. It's the same apps, previously built to be broadcast from your phone, now running directly in your car. I suspect that the very specific details here are still a work in progress, and there will probably be hybrids where some things run locally and other things are projected from your phone.