Using Android Auto is designed to make it easier — and safer — to use your Android phone in the car, and here are some tips on how to do just that.

It’s been four years since Android Auto first came to market, starting out as a platform supported by automakers out of the factory, and aftermarket vendors making head units for the dash. Since then, Google evolved it, even opening it up as a dedicated app you can run solely on a phone.

To make Android Auto work, you need a phone (tablets work too) that is running version 5.0 Lollipop or later. You also need a data connection of some kind, either from your SIM card or an in-car Wi-Fi hotspot. If you’re running it through the car’s stereo system and dash screen, you will need to plug it in with the proper cable. That would be a microUSB or USB-C cable, depending on which Android handset you have.

Setup and organization

Android Auto is a projection platform, meaning it actually runs on your phone, not the car stereo. I’ll get to the app-only use cases later, but for now, download the app from Google Play. The first time you plug in into your car, the car’s system should ask if you want to turn on Android Auto. Tap yes, and go through the motions to agree to the terms and safety messages.

The card-based user interface is meant to give you contextual info off the bat, like weather, music playback and other notifications. A menu bar at the bottom lines up all the access you need. Home is in the middle, flanked by navigation, music and phone calls. The far right option is to exit out of Android Auto.

Google Assistant has a dedicated button on the top right, though you can often also access that using the voice button on your steering wheel. Android Auto also works through touch, so tapping and swiping are the primary ways to navigate the interface.

Apps, phone calls and messages

The platform can only make use of compatible apps you’ve already installed. For example, if you don’t have Waze or Spotify installed on your phone, Android Auto won’t see them. If you do have them, you can choose them directly from the interface.

Google separates apps based on the existing sections. Apps, like Google Play Music, Spotify, Tidal, YouTube Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, TuneIn, Stingray and iHeartRadio, would fall under music. Audiobooks.com and Audible are good for audiobooks. Downcast, Pocket Casts and Stitcher are there for podcasts. MLB At Bat also works for listening to baseball games. Unfortunately, Apple Music doesn’t work through the platform.

Google Maps and Waze are the two navigation map options. Messages also range from the standard SMS to WhatsApp, Telegram and various others, including Facebook Messenger, Kik and Text+, among others.

Phone calls run through the phone app, though you can technically also make and take calls through Skype. There wouldn’t be any video, just audio.

Google Assistant for Android

For calls and messages, Google Assistant is truly valuable in the car. You can call anyone by saying, “Hey Google, call (contact or phone number),” or take a call by just tapping the accept button onscreen. You can equally reject a call doing the same thing with the reject button.

Google Assistant on Android Auto largely works the same way as it does at home or on your phone. Compose messages, launch apps, get directions, ask about the weather or get an answer to a general question. With Google Play Music and Spotify, you can even ask for a specific artist, album, genre or playlist.

Set reminders or create a shopping list on your way to the store. It can be pretty extensive, so ask “OK Google, what can I say,” to get some ideas on what you can do. Best to do that while you’re parked or stopped somewhere to avoid getting distracted.

Using it on your phone only

Android Auto also works as a standalone app, which is convenient if your car doesn’t have it as an option, or you don’t have an aftermarket deck installed. The app works much the same, except that you will need to plug it in to either USB or Aux-In to route the audio through the car speakers.

Note that the standalone app is also limited to the phone’s onboard microphone, so it won’t be as easy to do voice commands. Google Assistant does work the same way, it just needs to hear you. Naturally, under this setup, you won’t be able to use steering wheel controls. Activate it using the microphone button onscreen, or say “Hey, Google,” or “OK, Google,” to wake it up.

The interface is also limited to the size of your device. Icons are bigger relative to screen size to make them easier to touch, If you have an older Android tablet lying around, this could be a useful way to give it purpose. You can create a Wi-Fi hotspot from your phone, connect to it via Wi-Fi on your tablet, and go from there.

It’s a good idea to use a mount of some kind to prop up the phone to see it. Whether it’s a dash, vent, 12-volt socket or cupholder mount, the setup will work nicely. You won’t be able to use Android Auto in tandem with Uber, Lyft or any other rideshare app because they don’t work together yet.

Stay safe

As always, follow the laws in your particular municipality or province. Distracted driving is now a bigger risk than drunk driving. In some provinces, it causes most accidents on the road. Google designed Android Auto to reduce or eliminate the need to touch the phone. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t support every app you might use, but it does cover a fair amount of ground.

Check out the latest Android smartphones and tablets capable of running Android Auto in your car.

 

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Editor Cellular/Mobile Technology
I’m a fortunate man in being able to do the fun job of following and reporting on one of the most exciting industries in the world today. In my time covering consumer tech, I’ve written for a number of publications, including the Globe and Mail, Yahoo! Canada, CBC.ca, Canoe, Digital Trends, MobileSyrup, G4 Tech, PC World, Faze and AppStorm. I’ve also appeared on TV as a tech expert for Global, CTV and the Shopping Channel.