Android Automotive, the infotainment platform based on Google’s mobile OS, has taken off slowly to date. It’s only made it to a handful of models, mostly from Volvo and Polestar, while it’s been announced for future Stellantis, General Motors, Ford and Renault products as well.
That’s kind of a shame, because it’s really good. I went hands on with Volvo’s Android Automotive-based system in an XC40 at CES in January 2020, and the system was thoughtfully laid out and super fluid. Tuesday at Google’s annual I/O developer conference, the company announced the new Hummer EV will receive the same software. Except because it’s going in a Hummer, it’ll look super-aggro now, like a computer terminal from The Avengers or something.
The benefit to basing in-car entertainment and navigation around Android Automotive is that it comes with Google services built in. That allows passengers to speak to the Google Assistant to do things they normally couldn’t with voice alone in most cars, like adjust climate control. It breaks down the wall that normally separates phone projection software, like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, from your car’s mechanical features. (By the way, Android Auto is not the same as Android Automotive; Auto is what happens when you plug your Galaxy into your car. Yes, Google’s branding could use some work.)
Android Automotive also opens an avenue for carmakers to customize the display’s visuals to fit their aesthetic, much how phone makers like Samsung do with Android on their handsets. And the car companies love this, because it draws an affiliation with the brand that they were previously very concerned about losing when CarPlay and Android Auto first came on the scene in 2014 and 2015.
As my colleague José pointed out to me, the Hummer’s software bears a striking resemblance to Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the version of the mobile OS released for tablets in 2011. Judging from the look of it, Google was big into that Tron reboot 10 years ago. Honeycomb’s navigation and status bar is a dead ringer for what GM’s done with the Hummer; even the fonts are similar.
Fortunately, good old Android Auto remains an option if you don’t have a new car powered by Android Automotive. Porsche is the latest to come on board, adding Android Auto compatibility in the new 911. Meanwhile, BMW’s integration in the upcoming iX allows for instantaneous pairing, wireless phone projection (so there’s no need for a USB cable) and seamless integration with Google Maps in the car’s instrument cluster.
That last point may seem insignificant, but CarPlay and Android Auto are typically sandboxed within one display, and not able to project to multiple screens in a vehicle. As new models gain additional displays like, well, fungi propagate scale models of highway networks, this will become increasingly important.
Still, it’s somewhat pitiful that Android Auto is making its way to certain brands, like Porsche, only now while CarPlay was adopted by the vast majority of automakers years ago. If I was buying a new, expensive sports car, I’d be more than a bit miffed if it lacked such features, so it’s good — if not overdue — that Google is finally closing the gap.