Google and Apple are vying for dominance in in-car tech with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, with both systems allowing you to use your phone to slave the display in your car for a familiar view, filled with the apps you know and offering a voice assistant that actually works.
Of the two, Android Auto has been a little more progressive: while Apple CarPlay always looked nicer with its big icons, Google has been more flexible, offering both in-car and on device versions, choices for navigation and support for things like in-car buttons, which Apple has taken a while to catch-up with.
Google is now looking to shake things up with a big change to Android Auto. Here's everything you need to know.
Android Auto in your car
There's a big change coming to the in-car experience for Android Auto. This is the experience you get when you plug your phone into your car via cable. Your car has to support it, but for many of the big brands like the VW group (Audi, Seat, Skoda), Ford, Nissan and so on, many provide it as standard.
On connecting your phone to your car, you'll now get a new view from Android Auto. This partly addresses the design difference vs Apple CarPlay that we mentioned in the intro - in that Android Auto will now present big icons on a dark background, rather than tiles on a blue background in a sort of useless home screen arrangement.
The aim is to let you punch the icon you want and go straight to that service, rather than hitting a navigation button for a choice of apps available, then hitting that, then finally getting to the service that you wanted. It should make it easier to just punch the Waze button and be done with it.
There's a bottom navigation bar that will give you a "home" button to access the apps screen and a bell to access notifications, for example, while also carrying music controls when music is playing. Google says that if you have a wider screen in your car, this will be reformatted to sit on one side, rather than across the bottom.
The rise of Google Assistant
Undoubtedly Assistant is reshaping a lot of what Google does and it has been widely supported in Android Auto for some time. Not only could you use the hotword "Ok Google" to just start speaking, but it has also been possible to access that via a steering wheel voice button on the car.
However, in the new version of Android Auto, some apps are becoming a Google Assistant experience. This will be indicated by an Assistant icon overlaid on the app icon, showing you that you'll get Assistant when you press it, rather than opening a text-based app.
For example, in Google Calendar, it will open with Assistant to tell you what's in the calendar rather than showing you. It's designed to make sure your eyes stay on the road, rather than on the centre console.
Of course, Google Assistant will do everything that it's always been able to do anyway - accessing and controlling all the different elements of Android Auto, from opening music to placing calls or reading out messages.
In that regard, if you're used to using Assistant in the car a lot, then things don't change hugely.
Android Auto on your phone is now Google Assistant
One of the great things about Android Auto is that you previously didn't need to connect it to your car. This was useful, because it meant you could mount your phone and get a similar experience in older cars - just running on your phone instead. This is something that Apple has never offered with CarPlay.
We're at a fork in the road, however, with Android Auto no longer offering the same experience in your car or on your phone itself. Instead, for those wanting to run it on their phone, you'll get the Google Assistant driving mode instead.
It's designed to be a voice-first system so you can operate everything with voice without the need to touch your phone. You'll still get support for things like music, navigation and calls and you'll get access to all the services you're familiar with - just through Google Assistant instead.
The mode can be set to automatically launch when your phone connects to your car's Bluetooth.
Exactly why Google is offering two visually different systems does make us feel it's a little inconsistent. With a dark background on the in-car Android Auto, there's a lighter look to the Google Assistant driving mode, with little clear reason why. Once we've got the update will give you a full run-down on how it works.
When can I get it?
The update is rolling-out over the next couple of weeks - with Google generally saying that it's going to be available in "summer".
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