Google Keeps Making Android's Driving-Focused Modes Worse

Today in "things Google has prematurely canceled for no good reason."

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One of Google’s brightest ideas in the last decade was the Android Auto app. Different than the experience that you get when you plug an Android device into a new-ish car, the Android Auto app resided exclusively on your phone and gave your device a unique user experience built for driving, with large text, big UI elements and quick access to the sorts of features you’d often use behind the wheel, like phone calls and media controls.

The idea was that your car didn’t need to have a touchscreen for you to get the benefits of a proper infotainment system, or CarPlay or built-in Android Auto. All of that stuff could just be on your phone, and so long as you had a solid mount and perhaps a 3.5-millimeter jack or cassette adapter, voilà — your beige 1991 300E was now a “smart” car. Google killed that app, because it likes to do that, but replaced it with something similar in 2020 named Assistant Driving Mode, seen above. Wouldn’t you know, the company revealed to 9to5Google last week that it’s killing that, too.

The old, beloved Android Auto app. Oh, how we’ve missed it.
The old, beloved Android Auto app. Oh, how we’ve missed it.
Screenshot: Justin T. Westbrook

The Assistant Driving Mode Dashboard, which could be accessed through either a home screen shortcut or a “Hey, Google” command, will disappear on November 21. At that point, the only alternative will be Google Maps’ own Driving Mode (god, these names) which is intended for the same use case but not quite as powerful, and also requires active navigation to launch. That UI surfaces icons for driving-relevant apps, phone and media, but it’s more like a dumb home screen. The slick interface with predictive cards — like the weather and your current distance from home — and easily glanceable notifications is what we’re losing here.

For those who appreciate a simpler experience, it’s good that Google Maps’ version is sticking around. Having choice is always better than not, though. Maps’ implementation has been more popular if you ask Google, but I’d hazard a guess that’s probably less an indictment of the Assistant Driving Mode’s quality and more of Google’s habitual disorganization with these features, hiding them away in voice commands and menus — in separate apps no less — and ditching them when engagement unsurprisingly never takes.

It’s a shame, because there really is a market for a standalone device that can grant older cars some form of technological capability, that goes beyond music. But there’s a lot more money into pushing you to buy new cars, and Google and Apple are doing their part in that campaign, too.