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Tips and advice

What is Android Auto? Maps, apps and how to connect

Android Auto is one of the most popular in-car smartphone connectivity systems – here’s how it works

Coolwalk

Connecting your smartphone to your car’s infotainment display can unlock a host of useful driving features, and Android Auto is one of the best systems for doing so. While Apple CarPlay caters to iPhone users, Android Auto is the equivalent for those with an Android smartphone, operating in much the same way and providing many of the same functions.

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First appearing in 2015, Android Auto has been around for some time and is available in the vast majority of new cars. Google has continued to steadily upgrade the system since its launch with more apps and features, plus improved reliability.

What does Android Auto do?

Android Auto is a system that mirrors some of your smartphone’s features onto your car’s infotainment display in a clear and driver-friendly way. It’s designed to be easy-to-use when on the move, and acts much like a modern car’s built-in infotainment system. The key difference is that Android Auto is powered by your smartphone, so you have to connect it before setting off. We’ll explain how to do this further down. 

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But why would you want to use Android Auto instead of your car’s built-in infotainment? It comes down to functionality and usability, and Android Auto has several key advantages over a traditional infotainment system.

BMW Android Auto

The most significant benefit is the variety of apps that Android Auto offers. Navigation apps like Google Maps and Waze are free to use and often provide a slicker user experience compared to the car’s built-in sat-nav. You’re able to stream music from your phone, too, with Spotify, Google Play Music and other music apps available to use via Android Auto. 

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The system can also read out your text messages and manage phone calls for you, giving you the option to reply using voice commands. Smartphone apps that you would normally use for listening to podcasts, audiobooks or streaming internet radio can all be used through Android Auto, too.

How do I connect Android Auto?

If you own a compatible car and an Android smartphone running Android 6.0 or higher, you can use Android Auto. How you connect depends on your specific phone and car model – phones using Android 9 and earlier will require the Android Auto app, while Android 10 phones and later have Android Auto built in. If your car is equipped with Android Auto, all you need to do is plug in your phone using a USB cable and follow the on-screen instructions to get it set up. After that, all you do is plug it in each time you get into the car and it will appear on the screen.

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Some cars are now fitted with wireless Android Auto capability, which enables you to connect your phone via Bluetooth to the infotainment screen. Connect your phone to your car’s Bluetooth as you normally would, and Android Auto should become available.

Of course, this may mean you are unable to charge your device while you do so, but some vehicles eliminate this problem with a wireless charging pad. Bear in mind that no matter how you connect, your phone will need an internet connection to use all of Android Auto’s features.

How do I use Android Auto?

Android Auto is controlled using your car’s input device, so if there’s a touchscreen, then you can use that to interact with the apps you’ll see. If your car doesn’t have a touchscreen, then you’ll need to use its rotary controller or steering wheel buttons. Alternatively, the ‘Google Assistant’ voice control can be used to operate the whole system without taking your hands off the wheel or eyes off the road. 

Touchscreen

You can also use voice control to set your destination; saying ‘Hey Google’ wakes up the voice recognition feature or, if your car has a voice control button on the steering wheel, you can simply press this. Google also recently added calendar integration into Android Auto, so users can see events and appointments. 

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Just like Apple CarPlay for iPhones, Android Auto provides a safe way to use your smartphone’s features while driving, with a recognisable operating system and the same apps we use every day. Apps need to go through a certification process to be safe to use on the move, so not everything on your phone is available while driving. 

There’s a huge range of apps available though, from music, radio, audiobook and podcasts for entertainment on the move, to various messaging services – operated through voice control, or a one-tap Smart Reply function. A recent update also added YouTube, which allows you to watch videos on the service when you’re parked.

The service also recently introduced split-screen functionality, allowing you to view multiple apps on the screen at once, such as navigation and audio, without having to return to the home screen. The update also added scaling, so functions are more clearly displayed regardless of the size of your car’s display – larger screens might display more at once, while smaller ones can be pared back so they’re still perfectly legible.

What is MBUX?

And perhaps cleverest of all, the latest version lets you unlock and start some cars with your phone. The function is currently limited to a handful of phones and currently just a selection of recent BMW models, but it’s anticipated that the likes of Honda, Hyundai and Volkswagen will soon also join the party.

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Google is constantly updating the Android Auto software to enable more features and make it even more intuitive to use. These updates will be installed onto your mobile device each time there is a system update, so when you next connect your phone, the latest version of Android Auto will be loaded.

Which cars have Android Auto?

Nearly every major manufacturer offers Android Auto in its latest cars. It’s usually fitted as standard to premium cars, such as models from Audi and Mercedes, while you may have to pay extra for it to be fitted to cars at the more affordable end of the spectrum.

Notably, you won’t find Android Auto (or Apple CarPlay) in any Tesla model, leaving drivers reliant on the built-in infotainment system instead.

We can’t list every car currently available with Android Auto, because that list would be huge and constantly changing, but more and more cars are now offered with the software. We’d always recommend checking with the dealer first, as specifications can change regularly depending on the model year.

However, we usually mention it in our in-depth reviews, so head to our review of the car you’re looking at to see if it has Android Auto and/or Apple CarPlay.

Can I add Android Auto to an older car?

It is possible to add Android Auto to an older car, but it depends on the type of infotainment or stereo system currently in place. You can purchase an aftermarket ‘double DIN’ car stereo system with a touchscreen and Android Auto compatibility, but these will only fit older cars that use the now-obsolete ‘DIN’ stereo dimensions. You’ll struggle to find a replacement system with Android Auto if your car came with a bespoke infotainment screen from the factory.

What’s the difference between Android Auto and Android Automotive?

You may have heard one or both of these terms when reading about in-car connectivity, but despite their confusingly similar names, Android Auto and Android Automotive are two distinct systems designed to serve different purposes.

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Android Auto is the system we’ve been talking you through so far – the software that runs on your smartphone and allows you to use certain features of your smartphone through your car’s in-built display once it's connected.

Android Automotive works differently. This is a unique operating system, based on Android, that is baked into the car itself and is used to run the car’s infotainment and climate controls, without any smartphone involvement. You can find it in new cars from Polestar, Volvo, Ford and Renault, amongst others. Although different manufacturers will tweak the visual layout, the operating system underneath is the same.

Check out our guide to the best free driving apps and the best paid and free sat-nav apps for your phone.

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