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Android Auto without a touch screen is weird, but I kinda dig it

Android Auto No Touch
Android Auto No Touch (Image credit: Android Central)

I don't ask for many features when choosing a rental car, but Android Auto is usually top of the list. Having that bigger screen for Google Maps on long drives is so handy, and the large UI for calls and music genuinely make me a safer driver. I've gotten so used to it, it's difficult to really enjoy a car without it.

This time, my rental car was a little different. I was provided a 2018 Audi Q5 Quattro, which on top of a ridiculous 248 horsepower engine came with an Android Auto interface that did not include a touchscreen.

Wait, what's happening here?

There's very little about Android Auto that isn't clearly designed to be touched. Even when you just use the Android Auto app on your phone, the UI is designed for you to be able to make quick glances and mash a finger against a big button with little concern for accuracy. It's pretty hard to miss these big buttons, which is a big part of the appeal especially on a larger display.

But the 7-inch media display in the 2018 Q5 has no touch capabilities. It's just glass. That's because the entire rest of the Audi-made interface is controlled with a dial down next to the shifter knob. It's a large button that can be twisted left or right, and pressed in to select, but also can be shifted in the standard D-Pad set of directions. There are quick actions for music and volume controls on the steering wheel, but you did basically everything else with this dial.

To say this took some getting used to is a bit of an understatement. If I wanted to jump to the Google Play Music interface from the Google Maps interface, I had to pull down on the dial so I could access the quick launch buttons, and then rotate the dial to the one I wanted and press down to select. To get back to the main interface from this bottom nav, I needed to push the dial up. If I wanted to access the Hamburger Menu on any screen, I needed to slide the dial to the left. Anytime I would rather use my voice, I needed to slide the dial to the right and wait for the telltale ding to come through the car speakers.

As you can see, this added a lot of extra steps to pretty much everything. There's no situation in which tapping the touch screen wouldn't have been a shorter trip for using this interface, but it was also clear Google and Audi made sure every part of the Android Auto interface was still accessible.

I mostly don't hate this

I'll be honest, the first few hours of driving this car were not my favorite. I felt like I was learning a whole new system, and everything felt inconvenient. Had I only used that car for a single day, my opinion would have been very different and I'm guessing the folks at Audio wouldn't have wanted to answer my phone calls in the future.

By the time I finished my 16-hour drive, the Audi system felt natural.

But right around the six hour mark, it all sort of clicked. Navigating the dial became muscle memory. I found I knew the UI well enough that I didn't really need to look at the screen while I was driving to make changes on it. If I wanted a new playlist in Play Music, or if I wanted a different podcast in Pocket Casts, I knew how many dial clicks it took to get there. I mostly use my voice in Google Maps or when I want to call someone, which felt mostly the same as using my car back home.

By the time I finished my 16-hour drive, the Audi system felt natural. I maybe even felt a little bit safer, because I could recognize I was focused even more on the road that I usually was. The only real difference was with notifications. If I got a text message it was always noticeably less convenient to dismiss those than it was with a touch interface. But I have most of my notifications turned off when I drive anyway, so this was a fairly infrequent thing to encounter even after 34 hours of drive time in the vehicle.

I'm not convinced I want this to be the default, but after spending so much time in this car I found myself wondering how much I would use the touchscreen if it was even an option in this car. It made me wonder if Google and other car manufacturers would consider building systems were multiple input methods for these media modes were considered standard. And to that point, what if a company like Logitech made a car-friendly dial for every car that worked with the Android Auto app instead of requiring a separate display?

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

21 Comments
  • My wife has a 2016 Q7. I like the bigger screen too but the interaction between the car an my phone doesn't work as well as if hoped. I still use it when we do road trips but I'm a bit disappointed. Maybe I need to get a newer phone. I have a ZTE Axon 7.
  • I feel that usability dynamic changes for the worse when your gear-shift is not automatic. Your left hand goes down, it grabs gear lever -- just a muscle memory -- than you think "Oh! I was actually going for the knob" and you look down and take your eyes off the road for good. That was my experience anyway and I hated it with the passion...
  • The argument for physical buttons and switches is always going to come down to muscle memory. Touchscreens are fine if I'm going to be focused on the screen when I use the device, but in almost every other case I'd prefer physical controls that I can easily find with my fingertips while keeping my eyes elsewhere. Automakers used to decorate dashboards with a wide variety of switches, each with a different shape and size (I could find every button and switch on my '91 Civic or '03 Protege5 without ever looking away from the road). I'm not against screens in vehicles, but touchscreens are not an improvement.
  • I guess, I was objecting to the placement of the thing more so than to the physicality of the controls -- maybe if they would have put it on the dashboard the experience would have been different. With automatic transmission it must be much less of an issue, though.
  • Well that won't be an issue since Audi isn't making manual transmissions anymore.
  • I don't think this article was Audi-specific... my experience was with Mini Cooper which still makes cars with the manual transmission.
  • Ah, my comment wasn't in relation to yours. I started writing it before there were any other comments, but didn't post mine until after you did. I agree with you that placement matters. Some cars used to have switches and indicator lights high up on the dash and even surrounding the gauge cluster, which is really the best place for anything that you need to see while driving, but you don't see that as much now. It's silly that we think we're more aware of the dangers of distracted driving nowadays, but don't make that the top priority when designing vehicle controls.
  • I hate it! I have a 2018 Q5 and have mounted my phone next to the Audi display and use that for everything except the radio. It is faster and safer to finger touch the phone screen than have to focus longer on the Audi display trying to see where the dial is scrolling, hi-light it then wait for the next screen choice.
    I would pay $$$s to have it switched to a touch screen!
  • Did this is reverse - own an Audi 2018 A4 (no touchscreen), and rented a chevy on work with Android Auto and a touchscreen - What a difference the touchscreen makes!
    Would be marginally better if you could switch controls from the "dial" to the steering wheel controls (which has a dpad but not functional in android auto). Is there a way to do this??
  • What exactly are you doing with the phone while driving that adjusting the radio is such a big deal that a dial where your hand resting is less safe than reaching and leaning forward? I mean, you are driving. Can't you just say 'hey Google' and keep both hands on the wheel?
  • I just got a Mazda3 2019 and the screen isn't touchscreen but I actually enjoy not having to look at it while driving. I was disappointed at first but I think this is the way to go. It's easy to learn just give it a few hours and you're good to go. Mazda has home, music, navigation and return buttons as well so you can jump from screen to screen or go back without using weird shortcuts. It's a beautiful implementation especially for cars that have a very nice driving experience where you don't wanna have any distractions but just enjoy the ride and the road.
  • Im a firm believer in the "knob" for many things... but mostly safety. My wife has a Honda Odyssey, I drive a MB GL, and they are both knob control systems. Test drove the Toyota Sienna and damn near went off the road trying to change the station because you have to look at it to use it. Not saying they should make them without touchscreens... but both options should be available.
  • I simply talk to my Ford sync 3 system and it changes radio stations, temperature of climate control, and with android auto I can pretty much talk to Google assistant to do any function with android auto like using pandora, iheart radio (even changing stations) setting destination with Google maps, ask Google assistant to look up information on the www (like when I wanted to watch the lunar eclipse at the Griffith park observatory and asked Google to see what time they closed.
  • Been using Android Auto with no touch screen in my Mercedes GLA 250 for a year now and its very easy. It has a similar system with a dial/movable wheel. I never used AA before this, so the control wheel use is the norm. I love AA more that Carplay. When I start the car, AA displays the local weather and tells me how long it is to get to work or home. Carplay loves to show you the available icons instead. I know what can be accessed and dont need to be reminded of it!
  • I drive an Audi with Android Auto and I must say, the physical dial in front of the shifter as the main HID is pretty frakking great. I had a rental Chrysler for a few weeks when my car was in the shop that had an Android Auto touchscreen and I felt unsafe using it. My next car will likely have a touchscreen Android Auto implementation and I hope I can get used to it and still be safe.
  • Who uses touch screens or dials with android auto? My Ford touch has voice control which Google assistant does by talking to it.
  • I cant stand AA and prefer icons to the stupid list format, at least with CarPlay you can go directly into the app of choice, scrolling thru a list is garbage! For the record, I've been using Android phones for 7 years now, I'm not an Apple fan.
  • As a car guy, there are few things I hate more than touch screens in the car. Give me a well designed button, knob, or switch I can use without having to look to make sure I'm touching the correct spot. Screens are great for displaying info, not so much for touching while driving.
  • My 18 GMC Sierra has a full touch screen which is great for AA but it also maps most of the stock head unit nav buttons to it such as the back button. My favorite is that the tuning wheel lets you spin it to navigate through like you were and scroll through playlists which I love. I jumped in my brothers 18 f350 and plugged in only to be disappointed that it is only touch screen with no fast way to scroll. All things aside can Google please add YouTube support for when the car is parked? Would be so much nicer especially when parking showing other people a video.
  • I'd say a combo of both would be nice. Though what would be 'nicer' is that stupid, idiotic limitation of how many things times you can 'touch' the screen... what do you do if the music you want is at the bottom of the list? Hmm? You simply CAN'T listen to it if it i has a name that the voice assistant doesn't recognize... If they'd REMOVE this stupid "safety" limitation, then Android Auto would be so much more amazing... And then add in the ability to have a DECENT physical input, and you'd have a diamond of a system... if its a knob, then have a dedicated 'option' button that changes the focus, or maybe have TWO of these buttons... one for the sandwich style icon thing... and one for the navigation buttons.... then you can use the scrolling of the nob to scroll through a list 'quickly', or tug down on the knob like a D-pad and navigate with finer control. Having to remember which direction to press to get a certain 'response' is kind of dumb, lazy, and cheap... gimme a button for the bottom row of selections, and give me a button for the 'options' menu thing... that'd make it alot more simpler to use/navigate, and provide much more use.... because then if you're in a music app, you can reserve the left and right directions for forward/back, and the up/down for maybe artist/album skipping. then the knob itself turning for volume control. This way the passenger can have an easier say in what is playing... but god... get rid... of that stupid.... 'safety' feature that does nothing but cause more problems than it solves..... You touch the screen to try and get to the song you wanted, only to have to hit MORE buttons to just navigate back out to the main screen again..... its 'pointless'..... Just let me select the song I want damn it...
  • I own a 2017 Audi A4 with the exact same display configuration and Android Auto. I use it almost every day ever since I got the car. Honestly I don't understand why anybody would WANT a touchscreen in the car. Buttons are way more comfortable, not even mentioning the safety aspect.