Google’s Android Auto for people with stupid cars is good

A photo of a hand holding a Pixel 5 with the Driver Assistant Mode interface on it, with a car in the background

The new Driving Assistant mode can help you move around without touching the screen when you are behind the wheel.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

I live in the California suburbs, known for their relative inability to walk, exacerbated by the presence of rolling hills and scorching days. I rely on my car to get me and my family around, and I want as little distraction as possible while driving.

I adopted Android Auto in 2016 as my aging car’s in-dash entertainment system when Google released a phone-only version of Android Auto for vehicles without an infotainment system. Eventually, manufacturers like Anker started making third-party adapters like the Roav Bolt, which plugs into a car outlet and plays sound through the vehicle’s speakers via Bluetooth. It was a way for me to avoid upgrading my car to get hands-free functionality.

But Google plans to do away with the standalone Android Auto phone app and instead turns to a more streamlined experience in the Google Maps app. It’s called the assisted driving mode, and it’s started to be rolled out on some devices, according to 9to5Google. If you are using the beta version of Android 12, you should see it appear after you yell “Start Driving View” or “Let’s Drive” to the Google Assistant. Some have also reported that it is appearing on Android 11 devices running the beta of Google Assistant, which you can activate through the Play at the store, although I couldn’t get it up on my own.

I managed to get it to work on the Pixel 5 with the latest beta update to Android 12. There is a support page if you need more help bringing it up. The new UI is supposed to be available without entering a destination, but I was only able to get the new home screen the first time I asked the wizard to launch the feature, after which it ended. realized that I wasn’t driving anywhere and went back to Google Maps. The lower right corner of the Maps app shows a little app drawer button like you would see on Android, and tapping on it takes you to a sort of driving launcher.

Three side-by-side screenshots of the new Driving Assistant mode

The new Driving Assistant mode is a completely redesigned Android app launcher for the car.
Screenshot: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

You can choose your apps from here, the same way you would browse the apps in the Android Auto launcher on cars that have it integrated into the dashboard. Every little app has an interface filled with quick links and playlists if it’s a media player app. There are also quick buttons to make a call, send and view messages, or browse media playlists organized for you by the assistant in apps like YouTube Music and Google Podcasts, two apps I don’t use. at all. I even marked Spotify as my default music player in the Google Assistant settings, but I don’t have access to these playlists unless I specifically access the Spotify app.

There’s no back button on the Driving Assistant mode, so if you want to move on to another task or app, you’ll have to hit the launcher and select the option that’s right for you. Or you can say the command “Hey Google”, which this feature is supposed to inspire you with, anyway. That’s why you’d buy an accessory like the Roav Bolt, which adds a microphone to your car so it can hear you say it, and why Google is moving away from the original look of Android Auto on the phone.

Two screenshots, side by side, of the two versions of Android Auto and the Assistant Driving Mode

The Pocket Casts app on assistant driving mode (right) has fewer menus to navigate than the original Android Auto app (left) for the smartphone.
Screenshot: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

The new driving assist mode isn’t perfect, but it feels like a step in the right direction. It is much better than the initial overview I saw at Google I / O in 2019, where I saw a demonstration of a full page interface that scrolled through each of the feature options available while driving at length. The interface is also much easier to navigate with one finger, and there are fewer menus to manage, probably why there is no longer a “back” button to drag you through menu structures. The key to a safe in-car interface is that you can glance at it to get the information you need without taking your attention off the road (which is why I try to avoid driving on beta software!).

Hopefully, it will become a little easier to access the organized home screen without going into navigation mode or without the car having to recognize the movement. After all, what if I’m not driving anywhere in particular, but still want to browse my music? I can go to Driving Assistant mode to start the song, but only if I set up a destination, which I don’t always need to do.

With the Android Auto phone app heading to the Google cemetery soon, it’s nice to see google trying to improve the driving assistant mode. This makes it easier for those of us who don’t have Android Auto compatible cars to have features and apps optimized for safer driving.

Update, September 15 at 4:45 p.m. ET: Google has made the following statement on the future of Android Auto:

The Google Assistant Driving Mode is our next evolution in the mobile driving experience. For people who use Android Auto in supported vehicles, this experience is not going to go away. For those who use the experience on the phone (Android Auto mobile application), they will switch to the Google Assistant driving mode. From Android 12, the Google Assistant driving mode will be the integrated mobile driving experience. We have no further details to share at this time.

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