Waze on Android Auto: Invaluable feedback and alerts with sub-par maps and routing

One of the best ways to take advantage of Android Auto is with navigation. No more messing with your phone to figure out where you're going and how long it'll take to get there. Just tell it where you want to go, maybe tap once or twice, and that's it.

And Google Maps has been brilliant for this. Missing, however, has been Waze. Until now.

Some 14 months after first being announced at the Google I/O developer conference — and after a few months of semi-private beta testing —  Waze is now available for Android Auto in public release.

As with anything Android and Google, there always are a few things you need to know, however. And these are they:

How to get Waze for Android Auto

Two apps you need: the Android Auto app, of course (because how else will Waze connect to Android Auto in your car, right?), and the Waze app itself.

There's one caveat here, though. While Android Auto will run without a connected head unit — there's a nice little car mode that you definitely should check out if you haven't already — Waze requires the full-on Android Auto experience. If you don't plug your phone into your car to use Android Auto, you'll just need to keep using the same old Waze app you've been using.

Why Waze on Android Auto? The feedback

Why would you want Waze when there's a perfectly good Google Maps app already installed? (Longtime Wazers already know the answer to this.)

Waze alerts

User feedback. As in real-time notifications if you're coming up on a construction area or an accident. Or if there's a speed trap ahead. Or some other obstacle in the road.

When you're using Waze, you're able to report when you see issues other drivers might want to know about. And other drivers then see that information in real time, as a little icon on the screen, as well as through an audible alert. You can contribute to the cause, or not, but everyone gets to take advantage of it.

I've been using Google Maps on Android Auto for a couple years now, and it's been great. And I'll probably continue using it when I'm driving somewhere new. (More on that in a second.) But in town, where I'm less concerned about figuring out how to get where I want to go and more concerned about what's on the road on the way? That's where Waze is perfect.

Waze on Android Auto — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the "ads"

If you have Waze installed on your phone and are connected to Android Auto, you're good to go. Just hit the map icon again on the screen, choose Waze, and you're there. You can just let it run and see what things are like near your car at any given time, or you can set a destination, either with your voice or by tapping the screen. Pretty standard stuff, really. (Pro tip: Make sure you have home and work pre-determined, and take a few minutes to add other "favorite" places when you're not connected to your car.)

Real-time feedback from other drivers can be invaluable.

If you tell Android Auto to navigate somewhere, it'll default to whichever map app you were using last — Waze or Google Maps. That's a small thing (it'd be better to be able to say which app you want to use) and not something that's actually bothered me. It's just something to note.

We've already mentioned the real-time driver feedback. That's the "good" part of Waze on Android Auto. It's intuitive and mostly easy to use. If you're new to Waze, it could take a little while to get used to how far down into the options you have to go.

It takes three taps to report the most basic obstacle. For others, it's four. That's a few more taps than I want it to take. For instance, to report construction, you have to go through Main reporting button > Hazard > Hazard on road > Construction. (And that doesn't take into account that plenty of time there's construction that's not actually on the road, but that's another thing for another time.)

Waze and Google Maps

Waze on the left, Google Maps on the right. One is decidedly better looking.

And this is where we run into the first real miss with Waze on Android Auto. After more than a year in development (and that's just the time we know about), you can't use your voice to report cops or construction. That's a missing feature at best, and a liability at worst, taking your eyes off the road. (And keeping you focused on the drive ahead is the point of this whole thing.) That'll change at some point, I'm sure. But for now, it's missing.

The design itself of Waze's maps leaves a LOT to be desired.

And I'm not going to go into all the other things that veteran Wazers will note are absent from the Android Auto version. Because, frankly, I don't care. I don't want to worry about earning points or being able to virtually "wave" to other drivers. It's a bad idea in a phone app, and it's a bad idea in a native Android Auto instance.

I will, however, mention the other standout feature of Waze on Android auto, and it's not a good one. The design of the maps themselves is not good. That's a strange thing to say, given that Google owns Waze as well as Google Maps. But if you've ever wondered just how big a difference there was between owning the former and actually being responsible for the latter, here you go.

The visuals in Google Maps are so much better than Waze. That's true whether you're in a bird's-eye view or zoomed in at street level. (And Google Maps is smarter about when to use which, too.) That's true for the look of the streets and routes themselves, and it's true for the labels you see there, and on landmarks and destinations. It's exactly as good as we've come to expect from Waze, and nowhere near as good as what you want in a Google-owned map.

I'm also not crazy about the routing I've seen from Waze. (This isn't a new complaint.) Your mileage will vary depending on your location, of course. But Google Maps definitely is smarter about keeping me off side streets and avoiding more turns than necessary, even if there's more traffic on the major thoroughfares.

A local ad on Waze for Android Auto

A local ad on Waze in Pensacola, Fla.

And finally, there are the "ads." While you've likely seen them on the phone version of the app, there aren't what you'd consider normal display ads anywhere in Waze on Android Auto — or in any Android Auto app I've seen, for that matter. But Waze still has featured businesses. "Branded pins," they're called. Wonder why Whataburger or Taco Bell are so prominent on your map? It's because they paid to be. And they're not the only ones. Anyone can buy an ad on Waze, including local retailers.

This actually hasn't bothered me maybe as much as it should. Is it silly? Yeah. Annoying? A little. Does it make me want to eat at either? Nope. I'd actually say in terms of what those of us in the business call "native advertising," it's actually done pretty well. Tap one of those pins and it'll give you a little info about the business, and tap again to navigate to it. It's not what I'd consider to be intrusive at all.

What's next for Waze?

There's still plenty of work to be done for Waze on Android Auto. The UI of the maps definitely needs work. You can't yet send your ETA to someone. And there are plenty of edge cases veteran Wazers can come up with. (Some things, however, are best left outside of Android Auto, I'd argue, where minimization remains a priority.)

For now? If you've got an Android Auto-compatible car or head unit, it's definitely worth checking out. While the user interface is lacking, the feedback from your fellow drivers can be invaluable.

Phil Nickinson