Google officially launches Android Auto with new app: Here's everything you need to know

Google isn't going to let Apple steal your attention, not even for one second, so it outlined a new plan of attack last summer that aims to keep you tied to Android....even from behind the wheel. Jump forward to today, and the company has just started to launch its grand plan.

Patrick Brady, the Director of Engineering at Android, first announced at Google I/O 2014 that Android is coming to vehicles. Although the Mountain View-based company unveiled the Open Automotive Alliance earlier in the year, it only revealed in June that many more car-related things were in the works. In fact, it dreamed up a new platform specifically for automobiles, called Android Auto.

"Even though it is unsafe and in many places illegal, people use their phones while driving ... there's gotta be another way," announced Brady. "We've redesigned the Android platform for automotive, making it easier and safer to use the apps and services drivers want in the car."

Not much more information has been revealed since Google's last developers conference, though the company finally kicked things up a notch on 19 March 2015 by unexpectedly releasing a dedicated Android Auto app that allows smartphones running Android 5.0 and above to communicate with compatible head units and car infotainment systems.

Keep reading to learn all about Android Auto and its new app.

What is Android Auto?

According to Google, Android Auto will primarily tackle navigation, communication, and music - because those are the things people usually use most while driving. Android Auto will put them front and center, meaning you won't have to hunt through a grid of apps and icons when in a vehicle. The platform is also contextually aware, so it'll serve up useful information when you need it.

"And most importantly, Android Auto is completely voice-enabled, so you can keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road," Brady announced last summer, adding that he wished he could drive a car on stage for demonstration but couldn't for safety reasons. Google is known for doing such lavish demonstrations (like when it had skydivers fly into an I/O event in 2012 for Glass).

Still, there was a resting demo car available for the keynote. Google showed how you simply plug your Android phone into a vehicle, and then Android Auto casts everything to your vehicle's infotainment screen. At that point, you could put your phone down and use familiar car controls, such as toggles on the steering wheel, in order to control your phone.

What are some main features?

The first thing you'll see on your car's dashboard display, apparently, is the Overview Screen. It contains contextually-relevant destinations, reminders, contacts, and music, all of which is pulled from Google Now and other apps. Google said the apps that appear are actually the same apps running on your phone, so the company recommended you regularly update your apps for a smooth and fast experience.

If you don't want to use car controls or voice commands with Android Auto, the Overview Screen (and specific apps like Google Play Music) feature simple, glanceable controls: "One tap, and he's navigating or listening to his favourite road trip mix," Brady explained, while giving a demonstration last summer at Google I/O. "Keeping his hands on the wheel. Fantastic."

Speaking of navigation, Google Maps in Android Auto has all the same popular features you love (examples include live traffic and turn-by-turn navigation), but it's even more powerful than Google Maps for smartphones. It's completely voice-enabled, for instance, so that instructions even are spoken and displayed on your car's dashboard screen.

Other features like messaging are also voice-enabled. New messages even show up as heads-up notifications on your car's dashboard screen. Check out the promo video above for more information on the new features within Android Auto.

How does the Android Auto app work?

Like Apple's CarPlay, Android Auto takes apps running on your phone and beams their data to your car's display.

The new Android Auto app, which is now on the Google Play Store, is designed to link your phone to your car. Android Auto can then pass data from apps on your phone (such as Google Maps, Messages, Google Play Music, Weather) to your car dashboard, and then it displays that data in user-friendly interface that's largely hands-free. But for the app to work, your car manufacturer must be on board.

There are many manufacturers lined up, but there are no cars in existence right now that actually support Android Auto. Thus, if you want to start experiencing Android Auto today, you have to get an aftermarket head unit like Pioneer's AVIC-8100NEX, AVIC-7100NEX, and AVH-4100NEX. These head units are compatible and range from $700 to $1,400.

You'll have to swap out your current radio set up for one of Pioneer's head units, and then you'll need access to a Lollipop phone with the Android Auto app installed. Once you launch the app and get past the start screen, you'll be able to connect... and that's it.

Don't expect to do anything after that; you'll only see a screen with an option to disable pairing with unknown vehicles. The new app is just supposed to link your phone and car together - and nothing else. But it's a start!

When is Google launching Android Auto?

With the launch of the Android Auto app, Android Auto has technically kicked off.

Google originally said the "Android Auto experience" would be available to all consumers with the public "L release" of Android, alongside the Android Auto SDK for developers, which enables developers to make specific apps just for the car, but obviously things have gone much slower.

Does Android Auto have any partners?

Over 25 car brands have signed up to offer Android Auto. The first vehicles with support were supposed to start rolling out by the end of 2014.

Google also claimed more than 40 partners have joined the Open Automotive Alliance. Those names include Audi, Bentley, Chevrolet, Jeep, Honda, Ford, etc. Most major car manufacturers, basically, as well as major accessory manufacturers, so expect Android Auto head units too.