Android for your car: A work in progress

The auto industry has strived to build technology into its cars to manage navigation, the phone and entertainment. Most in-car systems in use now are designed in-house or by large original equipment manufacturer suppliers to the industry, such as Denso.

The challenge for the auto companies is to advance their in-auto capabilities fast enough to match those of our smartphones, and to incorporate all their new services, such as streaming music, Internet radio, local search and much more.

This opportunity has attracted Apple and Google to develop in-car systems based around their experience with their smartphones. Their goal is to sell these to the automotive companies, much as Bose sells them sound systems.

Ultimately, they want to replace the automobile’s system with their own, but that will take years. As a first step, they’re offering systems that sit on top of the car’s interface, much like an app. That leaves it to the user to choose whether to use the auto company’s built-in system or switch to an Apple or Google system.

Google’s Android Auto is the first to become available; Apple’s Car Play is coming later this summer. I’ve been trying out Android Auto on the first car to incorporate it, the Hyundai Sonata, a beautiful new model incorporating Hyundai’s next generation of sleek styling.

Android Auto is designed to work with an Android phone running Android 5.0 or later, something not all phone brands have made available. For my tests, I used a Motorola X phone supplied by Hyundai.

To set it up, download the Android Auto app on the phone, along with other apps that work with Auto, such as Play Music, Spotify, Pocket Casts and iHeartRadio.

The phone is plugged into the USB port and paired with the car’s Bluetooth. Once that’s done, the phone can be tucked away, because it’s only used for connecting to the Internet. Surprisingly, the phone is not adequately charged through this port, so the battery dies over time.

When the phone is connected by USB and Bluetooth to the car, the Android Auto icon is activated on the car’s display. Touching that icon brings up Android Auto, You can toggle between the two operating systems by touching the Auto icon on the car display.

Android Auto offers a few apps that play streaming music and Internet radio, as well as displaying Google Maps and managing your cellphone. You’ll also want to use Google’s voice interface because the buttons for making selections are severely limited on these apps, apparently in the name of safety.

In this Auto Office mode, your phone allows apps to communicate to the Internet. Most of your apps won’t appear on the car’s display, only those that are designed for Auto and meet Google’s rules for minimizing distractions — so forget email or text messages.

I was surprised by how few apps are available and how limited most of them are. For example, the Google Maps phone app offers tremendous capabilities that include detailed maps of both outdoors and indoors around shopping centers, callouts for local dining and much more.

In contrast, Google Maps on the Android Auto is just a shadow of the Google Maps we know and love. There’s a minimum of detail and limited customization. And it sometimes got its directions wrong.

Navigating to a supermarket, it took me to a highway entrance ramp 50 feet from the store’s parking lot. It pales in comparison with Hyundai’s own excellent GPS system, which, for example, lets you enter whether you avoid tolls or use the HOV lane or FasTrack.

One nice feature is the Google dashboard screen that lists personal activities, past destinations and appointments that pop up on a scrollable list, much like Google Now on the phone. However, you cannot swipe the messages to delete them and they are so large that you can only see a few at a time. I did like the ability to listen to radio stations using the iHeartRadio app.

I found using Android Auto to be limiting and often switched to Hyundai’s own system, which also includes its own unique set of features, such as Sirius/XM, wireless calling, and much more. So expect to be shifting back and forth.

Android Auto is a start, but it’s far from a polished product. Since this is just the first generation, it will improve. The good news is that it’s all updatable on your phone.

And it’s understandable that the auto companies want to include Android Auto and Apple Car Play to give their customers a choice and an alternative to using the phones by themselves, which can be dangerous.

Just consider it a work in progress.

Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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