Software in automobiles that restricts phone usage while driving is a good thing — period. However, not all vehicles are compatible with Apple Car Play or Android Auto. That's what Android Auto for phone screens was for, but with it going away in favor of Google Assistant Driving mode, could that be foretelling as to what may be in the future for Android Auto proper?
Finding ways to move essential phone functions like navigation, conversations, music, and phone calls to a larger display that is more within the driver's view is far better than reaching for a smaller phone screen. Not only is the screen smaller, but so are the touchpoints. Also, using voice control through Google Assistant in a noisy vehicle is hit and miss.
A phone as the infotainment option in a vehicle is not a great experience for a few reasons, but it's really bad when using voice commands.
A vehicle that is correctly set up to use voice as a method of accessing various features has microphones located in very specific places so that it can best hear the driver's voice. Using a phone to do that is less than ideal. But at least the Android Auto for phones did an OK job of giving the driver a very simplified UI with large touchpoints for making changes. Google Assistant Driving mode aims to improve that.
The new app provides not only a better interface than its predecessor, but it also brings over some of the features that make Google Assistant so helpful — predictive suggestions. If you have enabled the settings to do so, Google Assistant takes what it knows about your schedule from being linked to your calendar and Gmail to help offer suggestions for traffic and travel times. I could see this being a great upgrade to the Android Auto found in vehicles.
I finally got a vehicle that supports Android Auto, and now I can't imagine not having it around — I love it even with its quirks. The Google-made infotainment software has been getting some much-needed attention in the last year or so with some new features, but better integration with Google Assistant along with an improved UI would be great.
There's nothing overly wrong with the way that Android Auto looks in its current form. I'm glad that there's finally the option to change the wallpaper, but there are still ways to improve the appearance and usability of the interface. For example, an auto-sort for most-used apps would be helpful, as would suggestions for new apps. This is something that could tie in very well with better Google Assistant integration.
Google Assistant Driving mode's suggestions for phones could create a more cohesive package with Android Auto creating an inclusive experience. Yes, Google Assistant is available in Android Auto, but it is there only as a voice assistant without the predictive features that are in the new phone app. The current relationship between the two pieces of software is still quite separate.
I would love to see Google Assistant more deeply woven into Android Auto and Google Maps.
Google Maps on Android Auto is great but not perfect, as I wrote about in my road trip tussle between Waze and Google Maps. Pulling usage info directly from what Google Assistant knows in the searches made on the smartphone that is travel related to the vehicle's display could be very helpful. Things like showing traffic and travel times, then offering alternate route options are proactive features rather than requiring me to ask for them.
Is using a phone in a dedicated driving mode better than fussing with the device while driving — yes, so long as you are using some great car accessories to properly display your phone so that you don't continuously take your eyes off the road and hands off the wheel. By moving more features to Google Assistant, those moments can be reduced even more. In addition, bringing some of the new Google Assistant Driving mode functionality to Android Auto can bring more hands on the wheel and eyes on the road time to that system as well.