Does Android Auto keep its promises, or is it just a gimmick?

Google's ever-increasing presence in the automotive industry isn't limited to building little pod-like machines that drive themselves around California. Millions of motorists in the United States and abroad have let the tech giant conquer their car's dashboard by downloading a free application called Android Auto.

As its name loosely implies, Android Auto promises to reduce distracted driving while providing a better, more straight-forward alternative to a car's native infotainment system. That's a tall order in an era when it seems like we reach peak distracted driving every day, and infotainment tech takes a leap forward every model year. Google argues it has the know-how to be part of the solution instead of adding facets to the problem.

We spent two weeks using exclusively Android Auto in two different cars to find out if it keeps its promises, or if it's just another one of Silicon Valley's gimmicks.

What is it?

Released in March of 2015, Android Auto completely overrides a car's built-in infotainment system. It looks familiar if you've ever used an Android-powered smartphone. Key information such as appointments, hotel reservations, incoming messages, and missed calls are displayed on rectangular cards lined up vertically on your car's touch screen. Basic buttons on the bottom part of the screen let the user access navigation, entertainment, connectivity, or the home menu. So far, so good.

Note Android Auto also works as a standalone application, so you no longer need a car with a touch screen to use it on-the-go. There's nothing stopping you from firing it up in a 1980s Oldsmobile Cutlass. We recommend having a source of power to ensure you still have battery life left when you reach your destination, though.

Like CarPlay, Apple's rival (and nearly identical) software, Android Auto is compatible with an array of third-party applications. These include WhatsApp Messenger, Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, Spotify, Skype, NPR One, and Amazon Music.

You need to make sure you have a data connection, and that your phone is compatible with Android Auto. Currently, the software works with all devices running 5.0 (Lollipop) or higher. Don't worry if you're not fluent in phones -- neither are we. Wikipedia tells us Lollipop made its debut in November of 2014, so any phone built after that should be good to go. You'll also need to download the Android Auto application from the Play Store. It's free, and there are no pesky ads or in-app purchases. What Google does with your data is a different story for a different time.

Hundreds of new and late-model cars are compatible with Android Auto. Be aware some manufacturers make you pay extra for the option, or bundle it into an option package along with Apple CarPlay compatibility and other tech features.

Our lab rats for this evaluation were a 2017 Audi A3 Sportback, a 2017 Chevrolet Malibu, and a Sony Xperia Z3. The first part of our test took place around Copenhagen, Denmark, and the second part in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area. The software looks and works the same all over the world.

Goin' places

Without a doubt, the best part of Android Auto is the ability to use Google Maps. Open Maps on your phone, type in the destination, plug the device into the car's USB port, and the directions will automatically show up on the screen. We like the option of clicking through the route to check when we need to turn, or which lane we need to be in when two or more freeways merge. It takes some of the guesswork out of driving in a new area, especially if the street signs are written in a language you don't understand. Before you ask: no, it unfortunately doesn't point out speed cameras.

The parts of Maps that make your life easier on a daily basis are all programmed into Android Auto. You can search for a point of interest along the route or find an alternate route. We also like that Android Auto recognizes languages. You can ask for directions in English and send a text message in French right after without breaking its computer-controlled brain. Plus, if you set a home destination it'll direct you there when you say "OK, Google, let's go home."

The home menu displays notifications on tiles. A new tile joins the totem of information every time you receive a text message or get a notification from a instant messaging application like Hangouts or WhatsApp. You can listen to the message, dictate a response, or tell Android Auto to reply "I'm driving right now" on your behalf. You can't see the message on the screen -- the idea isn't to turn your car's touch screen into a bigger smartphone. That's called a tablet and no one wants you using one behind the wheel.

The software won't show you what it's replying, but it reads the message out loud to make sure what it heard and recorded is actually what you want to say. This ensures you tell your mom you're looking for the nearest beach, not the nearest... y'know, another word for a female dog. Call us silly, but it's precisely the type of error that could happen with a software like this.

Triggered by a simple "OK, Google," the voice recognition is hit or miss at best. There are times when it works flawlessly, but sometimes it has a difficult time figuring out whether you're actually talking to it, understanding what you're trying to say, or making out who you're trying to call. Phoning someone named Jim, John, or Sarah works better than trying to contact Jean-Pierre, Giovanni, or Josephine. Not all voice recognition systems are created equal, so your experience will likely vary depending on the car you drive, where the microphone is located, and so on.

The phone's screen is locked regardless of what you're doing so you can't pick up your phone to Shazam a song, find a Poke Stop, or take a picture of a super-sweet Lancia Delta Integrale going the other way. In that respect, Android Auto keeps its promise of getting drivers to put down their phone and keep both hands on the wheel. We didn't necessarily keep our mind on the road, though.

The infotainment blues

The MMI infotainment system in our A3 tester is controlled with a big knob on the center console. It's excellent when used on its own, but starting Android Auto throws a massive wrench into the system. Google engineers seemingly forgot not every car is equipped with a touch screen.

Audi's MMI software was designed with the dial in mind so most of the menus are relatively shallow. With Google's software, we sometimes had to give six or seven clicks of the dial to go back to the previous menu, especially when using Maps, far and away the most useful part of Android Auto.

Another issue is that Android Auto doesn't incorporate any of the car's functions. You need to exit the application to access other tasks, like the vehicle settings in our A3. It doesn't take long and it's not really a big deal, but it makes us question whether Android Auto really reduces distracted driving.

We couldn't shake the impression that Android Auto would be considerably more straight-forward to use on a touch screen so we tried it again a month later in a Chevrolet Malibu. We liked it a lot better. It's much more natural to use; you can swipe a card out of the way, scroll down, or pinch-to-zoom like you would on a cell phone. As an Android user, the promise of familiarity finally rings true after just a few miles behind the wheel.

Still, we can't say Android Auto is a spectacular example of intuitiveness. For example, it insisted on showing us a hotel reservation three full days before we were scheduled to check in. Sure, you can swipe it out of the way, but it comes back the next time you start the car. The voice recognition part of the software also gave us grief like it did in the Audi.

Leftlane's bottom line

You'll like Android Auto if you're the kind of person that wants to stay connected 24/7 and often needs directions. You'll find real value in the application if you drive an older car with primitive software baked into the dashboard, or if you lose at the rental car roulette table and end up without navigation in a place you've never been to before. With Android Auto out and widely available, we'll be damned if Hertz sells another $10-a-day GPS system.

Android Auto beats not having an infotainment system at all in a lot of situations. However, car companies from all over the automotive spectrum are becoming close to fluent in technology, and Google's entrant is not the program to rule them all. It's woefully frustrating to use if you don't have a touch screen and it creates more distractions than it takes away. Even if you do, it's not as straight-forward to use as a phone.

Some native systems -- like Volvo's Sensus -- are better than Android Auto in every way, including at reducing driver distractions. It's worth a shot if you hate your infotainment system (it's free; what have you got to lose?) but don't expect infotainment magic the minute you marry your car to your phone.

Photography by Ronan Glon.