Native Android infotainment systems are coming, and they’ll change the way we interact with our cars
Google has spent the last few years working (somewhat quietly) on an Android-based operating system for cars that doesn’t require the use of a smartphone. Built on Android P, it’s meant to be far more advanced than the existing version of Android Auto, which simply projects a phone interface onto a car’s infotainment screen. It’s also supposed to be a more robust solution than some past infotainment systems that were built on forked (and very old) versions of Android without much help from Google, if any at all.
We’re about to get more familiar with this new in-car Android experience, though. Google has struck deals with Volvo and Audi to start rolling out these systems in 2020, and over the last year, we’ve seen a few examples of what they will look like.
GET READY FOR TRUE GOOGLE-BUILT IN-CAR SYSTEMS This new Android-based system would offer the benefits of modern Android Auto (like access to the automotive-approved app ecosystem on the Google Play Store). It will tap into a car’s system-level operations, meaning you could ask Google Assistant to turn on the heat, turn off the seat warmers, or even book maintenance appointments. The system is also customizable to suit carmakers’ differing styles, giving them more control than they get with projected Android Auto (or Apple’s CarPlay, for that matter).
This opens up all sorts of interesting new questions about the future of in-car infotainment systems. Google’s had its share of platform battles in the past. Is this another new frontier in that fight? How much of a sea change are we in for? And how does Google view these multiple, disparate versions of Android in the car? I sat down with Patrick Brady, the head of Android Auto, at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month hash it all out. We started by catching up on where projected Android Auto is today, but we eventually talked about everything from bringing the tech to motorcycles to making aftermarket systems with native Android and much more.
Also, to be clear, Google tells me it refers to this new platform as both “embedded” or “native” Android and “embedded” or “native” Android Auto, though it prefers the former — or more simply, “powered by Android.” (Brady and I use some of these terms interchangeably.)
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Patrick Brady: For Android Auto, what we call our “projected solution,” where Android Auto’s running on your phone and connects to a compatible car, I think adoption is not really the question at this point. And we’re now at a point where we’ve worked with over 50 different car brands and getting it launched everywhere. We’ve expanded our geographic coverage. So just a short time ago, we launched in South Korea, we launched in Taiwan, we launched in South Africa and several other countries, and we’ll continue to do that and make it more available. The big focus now is going to be on improving the core experience. And so we, just a while ago, in November last year, it seems like decades ago, right?
Sean O’Kane: Monday feels like decades ago at this point, honestly.
We launched an update that improves the media experience. Traditionally, we had kind of two models for playing media. You could talk to the Assistant and have it play something for you. And that’s great for when you know what you want to play. But sometimes you’re thinking, “Oh I want to play Coldplay, but I can’t remember the name of the album.” Then we had browsing, but in a car, that’s obviously not ideal for accessing your full catalog because you just can’t go through that depth of content while you’re driving. So back in November, we launched something where now when you search for something, if I say, “play Coldplay,” or even “play jazz,” we start playing something, but we also give you the ability to pivot into other categorized content that the app provides.
So if you want to play something on Spotify, and you say “play Coldplay,” it will start playing but then show you “here’s the list of their albums, and here’s their top songs.” And we’ve found that’s actually reducing the amount that users are browsing in the car, which is a good thing, and it’s helping them access the content they want in a more safe and seamless way.
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