We rely on our smartphones for more than texting and calling. It’s hard to go anywhere without a device in your pocket. From mobile payments to taking photos, your phone is the centerpiece of your life, a device so vital you probably feel naked without it.
Your car is a place where you absolutely should not use your phone, no exceptions. It’s a space where, despite security concerns, a smartphone would come in handy. Message friends and family about a traffic delay, view weather conditions during a road trip, and navigate to unfamiliar locations at times outside of your usual neighborhood. None of this should be attempted while driving without a way to control your device hands-free.
To combat potentially dangerous driving, Google has designed several ways to interact with your digital life without resorting to potentially dangerous methods of texting, calling, and more. Android Auto, Android Automotive and Google Automotive Services. All three have similar names and aim to achieve a similar goal: to provide you with essential smartphone tools without taking your eyes off the road.
Yet, regardless of Google’s intentions, these competing services can be confusing. Let’s break down what Android Auto, Automotive, and Google Automotive Services are, what they do, and how you’ll experience them.
What is Android Auto?
If you’ve used Android in your car, chances are it’s Android Auto. Google first unveiled Auto at I/O 2014. Android Auto introduced a massive change in the way people interacted with devices in the car. Drivers would no longer have to stop to respond to a text message or make a phone call. You can do it all right in the car, all with voice commands and minimal touch interaction. Simply plug your phone into your vehicle’s USB port or use it wirelessly through supported cars or accessories and you’re good to go.
Despite being unveiled in 2014, it took until 2015 for the feature to arrive for Android users, first hitting the road in the Hyundai Sonata. It was an improvement over the slow, buggy experiences included in most vehicles at the time, and even now, nearly a decade later, it still holds true.
The current Android Auto user interface is different. The service got a facelift in 2019, but things were a little simpler back then. A few tabs at the bottom of the screen let you switch between navigation, media, and voice assistant commands. The Material Design look was modern for its time, although it was a far cry from what’s currently on Google devices. Some of the biggest issues with Auto at the time, such as charging and the lack of third-party apps, were resolved over time as it became a modern platform.
These days, Auto looks a little more sleek and modern. It has a home screen where it’s easy to select from a host of third-party apps, and its media player continues to evolve in new ways. A dedicated notification tab makes it easy to review messages or missed calls as they come in. Eventually, it will feature a split-screen dashboard view, displaying your important information on a single screen, although Google missed its release window.
Not everything has changed. Auto remains isolated from the rest of your car’s infotainment system. In some cars, you’ll always have to tap the Auto icon to launch it once your phone is plugged in, and it’ll never fully sync with your car’s other gauges and displays. Meanwhile, for a seven-year-old product, it’s still woefully temperamental. USB cables continue to wreak havoc with drivers everywhere, and a ton of bugs throughout 2022 have prevented phones as popular as the Galaxy S22 series from syncing properly with the car.
One day it will be a reality.
Headaches aside, Android Auto remains a robust platform on the road that’s as convenient as you’ll find on Android. While some may prefer a phone holder while driving, relying on the large screens now in most modern vehicles keeps your view unobstructed while providing your favorite music, podcast, messaging and navigation apps is a dream come true. reality.
What is Android Automotive?
If Android Auto is a projection of your smartphone, Automotive gets rid of your device. Instead, it’s best thought of as a variant of Android, much like Android TV is an adaptation of Google’s mobile operating system for TVs. Automotive is a full operating system built into supported vehicles, which means that not only your smartphone is not required, it is not involved at all.
Although Google’s dedicated car operating system has been around since 2017, it only started appearing in consumer vehicles in the last two years. Previously, support was limited to cars from manufacturers like Polestar, as well as development partners Volvo and Audi. Far from what you would expect from a company as big as Google. While the search giant had announced numerous partners, it’s only in the past two years that companies like GM have launched vehicles powered by it.
So what exactly is Android Automotive versus Android Auto? As well as removing the need for your smartphone, it also controls all of your vehicle’s cabin functions. Rather than existing as an app on your car’s infotainment system, it’s your car’s infotainment system. It still offers all the parts you’d want from your phone, such as music, navigation and assistant, but without being tethered to your phone. Want to listen to Spotify on your drive home? There is a dedicated app for that, but it won’t use what’s installed on the device in your pocket.
It’s not just music, messages and cards. Android Automotive is also responsible for every interaction with your car’s in-dash display. Climate controls, vehicle information, rear view cameras. Everything is powered by Android. Even iOS users will have to launch CarPlay through Automotive, a humorous convergence of the two platforms.
Unlike Auto, which offers a distinct and unique look no matter which car you look at it on, Automotive’s appearance depends on your car’s manufacturer. GM is a perfect example of this, as Chevy and GMC have stripped down their versions of Automotive differently, despite their common parent company. While the differences are minimal (a custom icon pack is the biggest change between the two), it shows how little control the driver has over the look of the automobile compared to the manufacturer.
With Android Auto, Google is talking directly to end users. With Automotive, the automaker is the customer. And that brings us back to the final piece of this car-friendly puzzle.
What is Google Automotive Services?
If Android Automotive is a fork of Android designed for your car, Google Automotive Services (GAS) is its application package. GAS brings all your favorite Google system apps together in one package. As an end user, you will never interact directly with it. Instead, you will see the benefits of this system, especially if you buy a car from one of Google’s partners. Ford, GM and Volvo have agreed to use GAS. Stellantis, meanwhile, has partnered with Amazon.
These app bundles are not new to Android. Google has relied on them in the past to ensure phone makers follow specific instructions. Usually, the company has relied on the availability of the Play Store to pressure companies like Samsung to adhere to sets of rules or regulations on how Android works. It’s different with GAS, though, because Google sells those services to automakers as an optional buyout.
As we have seen with Stellantis, this is not a requirement. Considering the number of drivers, especially in the United States, who depend on iOS and CarPlay to get from place to place, it makes sense that some automakers (especially small businesses) might forego to adopt these services. Still, if you’re an Android fan, you’ll want to look for these apps when buying a vehicle running Automotive.
Android takes you where you need to be
As confusing as it sounds on paper, Google serves two distinct audiences with Auto, Automotive, and GAS. While general users are likely to interact the most with Auto, Automotive is slowly growing on newer cars as manufacturers turn their attention to the operating system. And a fully car-friendly operating system is nothing without apps, which is where Google Automotive Services comes in.
Ultimately, whether you’re interacting with Android in the car via a tethered connection or through a pre-installed operating system, it’s Google’s platform that helps you get where you need to be. This shows how much power the company has gained in the automotive world.