Google’s Android Auto joins the growing number of infotainment systems in the connected car

At its I/O conference on Wednesday, Google(s goog) finally gave us a detailed sneak peek at its connected vehicle infotainment system, which it is calling Android Auto. The system projects the Android smartphone’s user interface into the dashboard display, but it optimizes the controls so they can easily be used by drivers without getting distracted from the road.

Android engineering director Patrick Brady demoed the app on stage at I/O showing how Google Maps and Music and the SMS client in the phone can be manipulated with on-screen touch controls, steering wheel buttons and voice commands. All of the actual software runs in the Android phone, though. The automaker’s infotainment hardware is basically acting as a peripheral display and control system.

Android Auto creates a driver optimized version of your Android phone's UI on the dashboard (source: Google)

Android Auto creates a driver-optimized version of your Android phone’s UI on the dashboard (source: Google)

“It looks and feels like it’s part of the car, but all of the apps we’re seeing are on the phone,” Brady said. Consequently, as the car ages and its hardware becomes obsolete, Android Auto stays young, updating its operating system and individual app software like any other Android platform, he said.

For instance, the Google Music client becomes a much bigger, simpler interface that a driver can use to skip through songs much the way he or she would on embedded car stereo. Questions or searches put to Google Now are all answered via spoken voice, so drivers don’t have to read text on screen.

The messaging client not only composes messages via voice commands but reads all text back to the driver so he or she never has to look at the screen. And of course Maps, one of the most used Google apps in the car, gets a custom interface that looks more like an embedded navigation system.

Google Maps in Android Auto (photo: Janko Roettgers)

Google Maps in Android Auto (photo: Janko Roettgers)

It’s still unclear whether all apps on your phone will transfer over to the dash display, but my bet is they won’t. Google and its automaker partners don’t want you watching Netflix(s NFLX) while you’re in the driver’s seat. Instead, the company will likely limit the program only to Android Auto optimized apps.

Brady announced some of Android Auto’s first developer partners, which include Joyride, Stitcher, MLB At Bat, Pandora(s P), TuneIn, Umano, PocketCasts, and iHeartRadio.

Google is launching an SDK as part of the new L operating system’s big batch of new application programming interfaces. Among the first tools to be released will be audio streaming and messaging APIs, Brady said.

I suspect Google is going to be fairly hands-on in approving Android Auto–capable apps. It may not be as conservative as the automakers, but it’s likely to ban overly distracting apps such as those that rely on video streaming or require drivers to interact with or look at the screen too much.

Google signaled its automotive infotainment plans in January by creating the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), a consortium of automakers and hardware suppliers committed to supporting Android in the dashboard. Then we got six months of quiet with no details about the project until I/O today.

Like Apple’s(s AAPL) competing platform CarPlay, Android Auto doesn’t appear to be designed to completely replace the infotainment system in the car. In fact, we’ll likely see both CarPlay and Android Auto in the same vehicles. The list of partners in Google and Apple’s automotive partnership program is nearly identical.

Google's Open Automotive Alliance partners(Photo: Janko Roettgers)

Google’s Open Automotive Alliance partners (Photo: Janko Roettgers)

Google announced a bevy of new automotive partners in OAA, building off its initial four founding members GM, Audi, Honda and Hyundai. The platform is available to most every automaker in the world, with a few notable exceptions like Toyota(s tm).

How we’ll see Android Auto implemented

Chances are we’ll see Android Auto as a framework overlaid on automakers’ existing connected infotainment systems, along with many others such as Apple’s CarPlay or OS-agnostic systems like MirrorLink. Drivers could then choose to connect to Stitcher or iHeartRadio through their car’s 4G connection or through Android Auto and their phone’s radio.

Automakers may also choose these bring-your-own-device frameworks as their infotainment strategies for more inexpensive vehicles that wouldn’t normally be candidates for connected car technologies.

I highly doubt, however, that an automaker will design a car exclusively around Android Auto. That would basically be telling car buyers they have to own or buy an Android device to use all of the vehicle’s features. Also, automakers make a lot of money from their navigation and telematics systems. As Ford chairman Bill Ford told me in an interview last year, automakers aren’t going to simply shut down their app programs and hand the connected car keys over to Google.

Google’s Brady said that the first Android Auto-equipped vehicles will roll off dealer lots this year.

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