Android-Auto-Header

Since its first reveal at Google I/O 2014, Android Auto has been pretty quiet, with occasional comments and remarks from Googlers or developers making their way out to social networks or Reddit. That’s all changing now, with the platform’s official public unveiling last week and some 2.5 years of effort – including Australian Google engineers.

The first cars with Android Auto built in are still on their way, but Pioneer’s head units are the first third-party solution that can add Android Auto to your car, and they’re available now in Australia.

Pioneer’s Michael Broadhurst and Ben Crawford picked me up in a Volkswagen they drove up from Melbourne, fitted out with an AVH-X8750BT head unit to give me a first-hand look at Android Auto.

Connect and go

The AVH-X8750BT can be fitted into most modern cars with the aid of a dash kit (to ensure it fits the space available in your dash), and a CAN BUS adapter suitable for your car’s make and model. It can connect to your in-car CD player, control playback of audio files from USB, connect to devices via Bluetooth and do everything you expect your head unit to do, with the addition of support for Android Auto (and something else called Apple Car Play, but I’ve no idea what that is).

The CAN BUS adapter allows the head unit to control and respond to actions you perform like pressing the volume up/down buttons on the car’s steering wheel or changing climate control settings. This is more a function of Pioneer’s head unit than Android Auto specifically.

When you connect an Android phone running Android 5.0 Lollipop or above via USB, you’ll be prompted to install the Android Auto app. You can stash your phone wherever you like once the app is installed, because its home screen becomes a plain black screen with the words “Android Auto” on it – you’re not supposed to use your phone when driving, remember? Exactly where you keep the phone is up to you, and whoever installs your Pioneer unit. In our case, the USB cables ran into the glovebox, so we connected the phone and closed it up.

Along the bottom of the screen there’s a set of icons that somewhat apes Android’s on-screen buttons, except there’s five of them. Left to right there’s buttons dedicated for Maps, Phone, Home and Music, while the last button takes you to a screen that lets you exit Android Auto to get back to the Pioneer head unit’s menu system.

Interactions are mostly started by voice input, with Google’s now-familiar red voice input button ever present at the top right of the screen, only ever obscured by an “X” if a notification is displayed. Surprisingly, given the hot mess that is Android Wear’s voice recognition, Android Auto rarely missed a beat.

You can tap the red button to go into voice input, and your car’s CAN BUS adapter should allow the voice input button that sits on modern cars’ steering wheels to activate it as well, although that wasn’t the case with yesterday’s demo. Volume control from the steering wheel worked fine, though.

The Apps

Android Auto’s user experience has its roots in Google’s Material Design, which we’ve known to be the case for some time now. Apps built for it – at least, those installed on the demo phone yesterday – have a consistent UI with a main display and a Navigation Drawer icon to open up a menu of functions.

Aspiring to a hands-off driving expereince is all well and good, but sometimes you need the user to look at the screen to make a selection (for example, choosing a destination in Navigation). When that happens, there’s clear presentation of the options available with big buttons ready to tap with a finger and only the information that’s absolutely necessary is displayed.

Google’s being very selective about who it works with and which apps are allowed onto Android Auto at the moment, and the minimal UI design might well be a reason for this. The list of supported apps already includes a number of popular audio apps though like (unsurprisingly) Google Play Music, Spotify, Stitcher Radio and more. Australia’s own Shifty Jelly is represented in the lineup too – Pocket Casts is ready for Android Auto, right now and it’ll play your podcasts in your car!

On The Road

Michael and Ben had a pretty good groove going with their Android Auto demonstration routine, so I thought it best not to disturb them too much while they run through some of the headline features. We took a short drive around Artarmon as the guys did their thing.

The AVH-X8750BT head unit carries an RRP of $1149. You’ll need to find an appropriate CAN-BUS adapter for your car though, and you’ll probably need to get a kit to make the unit look at home in your dash. Pioneer seems very happy with the unit’s performance at retail so far – the initial shipment into Australia has sold out, and the second shipment is already mostly gone.

If you want to get your hands on one, Pioneer recommends shopping with specialist stores and Autobarn.

Pioneer-In-Dash

We’re looking to get our hands on a unit for a full review soon. In the meantime, if there’s anything you’d like to know about Android Auto or Pioneer’s AVH-X8750BT head unit, ask away in the comments and we’ll do our best to answer.

    26 Comments
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    Rami
    Rami
    5 years ago

    Can’t wait for the full review!
    I’m looking at either this model or the F70DAB.
    Only reason I’m looking at the other model is the fact that it has a capacitive touch screen as opposed to the resistive on this model.
    My question is, how did the resistive touch screen feel? My main concern is that it’ll feel slow, frustrating, and just have that “old tech” feel to it. Are my concerns justified?

    Ric Smit
    Ric Smit
    5 years ago

    Does the unit charge your device while plugged in?

    Brian Robinson
    Brian Robinson
    5 years ago

    Thanks for this Jason. I am doing an around australia trip this year and am very keen to see what this can do for my travels. Seems expensive though if the smarts are in your phone. What exactly are we paying for.

    whispy_snippet
    whispy_snippet
    5 years ago

    I’ve just had a chance to watch the videos. It’s actually pretty incredible how far voice recognition has come in the last couple of years. It’s gone from being 50% reliable at best to around about 98%. It’s now very, very good and I have a lot of confidence in its accuracy. As for the head unit itself, it looks pretty solid. Pioneer seem to have done a good job. One thing that stands out to me more than anything right now is the desperate need for always on voice recognition. Having to touch the head unit’s display every time… Read more »

    Jason Murray
    Jason Murray
    Reply to  whispy_snippet
    5 years ago

    There’s a voice input button on the steering wheel that should have been working for the demo, but the CAN-BUS adapter wasn’t configured correctly for it. You shouldn’t have to tap the on-screen button, but I do also think that an “OK Google” setup would be good.

    whispy_snippet
    whispy_snippet
    Reply to  Jason Murray
    5 years ago

    Ahh that’s interesting to know. A steering wheel button with that is easily identified by touch would certainly overcome having to deal with the display itself. But yeah, “OK Google” has to be the inevitable future.

    Glasfunk
    Glasfunk
    Reply to  whispy_snippet
    5 years ago

    Yeah, I’m very, VERY surprised by the absence of ‘Okay Google’ functionality, particularly as a lot of older cars don’t have a voice activation button on their steering wheel (or any buttons there at all). I’m sure there’s a decent technical reason for its absence, but it certainly seems like an oversight.

    xperia
    xperia
    5 years ago

    I dont see much use for it yet until we get better data plans here and of course when you can do it wireless or bluetooth without having to pull out your phone and plug it in.

    Also are you locked to google maps? is there a way to use other mapping software (maybe with updates?)

    Jason Murray
    Jason Murray
    Reply to  xperia
    5 years ago

    Unknown whether Google will allow other navigation software at the moment. It’s also on the developer — Here Maps (for example) would need to build Android Auto support into their app.

    J
    J
    5 years ago

    Watching the videos it looks like it displays the aircon controls (since you likely had to remove the OEM display to install it). Does that mean that if I don’t have my phone plugged in I can’t control the aircon? People are saying it is just a second screen to the phone but surely it has a medium level of smarts built in that works without the phone.

    Jason Murray
    Jason Murray
    Reply to  J
    5 years ago

    No, the aircon display is handled by the head unit. Android Auto is a separate subsystem that runs on the head unit.

    Brian Chambers
    Brian Chambers
    5 years ago

    I’m really struggling to see the difference between these android auto units and the ones that have previously been available from pioneer and Sony that will do screen mirroring from your phone. And given that you can get those units for around half the cost it’s really not adding up for me.

    whispy_snippet
    whispy_snippet
    Reply to  Brian Chambers
    5 years ago

    Android Auto offers a UI tailored to vehicles. It’s actually pretty different but whether it’s worth the money at this point is definitely still in question.

    whispy_snippet
    whispy_snippet
    5 years ago

    I can’t wait to get a break at work to really go through this post. Love the opening title photo with the bridge in the background. Well done, guys. Dedicated, comprehensive Australian Android content is when this place really shines and you’ve delivered the goods.

    JeniSkunk
    JeniSkunk
    5 years ago

    Jason, how well does the voice control in Android Auto work with user created playlists in Google Play Music?

    Jason Murray
    Jason Murray
    Reply to  JeniSkunk
    5 years ago

    That’s an interesting question. We only had a very cursory look over music playback on the drive, but it’s something we’ll look at in the review.

    theHam
    theHam
    5 years ago

    5. bonus general android auto question which i still can’t google an answer. Does anyone know how “updates” are handled under android auto (and in particular for this pioneer unit). My expectation is that the phone/android auto app is providing the bulk of the smarts for this but i’m trying to understand at what point will this head unit become incompatible and worst case could this unit be android auto beta and next year will see the real 1.0 release that becomes incompatible with android 6.0

    Jason Murray
    Jason Murray
    Reply to  theHam
    5 years ago

    It depends what you want updated. Apps are the apps on your phone. For example, we installed Pocket Casts on the Nexus 5 in the video literally seconds before making the video. It’s rather like Android Wear, in that the Auto component of the app is a part of the main APK. Once installed, Pocket Casts became available in the list of apps under the Music button.

    theHam
    theHam
    Reply to  Jason Murray
    5 years ago

    A common issue with car audio has been firmware features not being backported to older units e.g. 2015 comes with great new software feature but it isn’t made available to the 2014 model which has the same hardware leading to some people to cross flash.

    I’d be interested if anyone knows how the AA interface works could share what parts of the head unit could become a limiting factor in the future. That said this might have to be a wait and see given how new the tech is.

    Avon Perera
    Avon Perera
    Reply to  theHam
    5 years ago

    I *think* the way it work with Android Auto is that the Head unit is basically just a pipe to send the display and touch to/from your phone. Your phone drives everything in the interface, therefore the only thing that needs to be updated is the phone software. Think of the headunit as a monitor, keyboard and mouse. Your phone is basically your desktop tower. The idea is that it takes away the need to upgrade headunits BECAUSE they were so poorly updated in the past, and I think this is one of the biggest selling points that Google reps… Read more »

    Jason Murray
    Jason Murray
    Reply to  Avon Perera
    5 years ago

    I think this is true — and probably also why it needs a USB interface.

    theHam
    theHam
    5 years ago

    1. Does the AVH-X8750BT accept an external gps aerial or does it rely on the phone gps? 2. Does the AVIC-F70DAB (which has an external gps aerial) in android auto mode use the external gps aerial, the phone or both? 3. Is the AVH-X8750BT screen capacitive or resistive (it’s not clear on the pioneer website)? 4. Does anyone have a link to the AVH-X8750BT install guide? The reason i ask about the gps is my nexus 5 gps is getting really hit and miss in recent times. Also i probably should put these to pioneer direct but i figure if… Read more »

    Jason Murray
    Jason Murray
    Reply to  theHam
    5 years ago

    My guess on the GPS antenna would be that Android Auto won’t use it. Android Auto’s screen is basically a second screen for your connected device, ie its driven by the Nexus 5 in the glovebox.

    Taco Monster
    Taco Monster
    Reply to  theHam
    5 years ago

    On a developer’s podcast with the Android Auto team, they mentioned that Auto’s built to use the car’s GPS.

    theHam
    theHam
    Reply to  Taco Monster
    5 years ago

    I saw a youtube video off the wikipedia page as well that indicates car sensors are used to supplement it but i’m not sure if these are hooked up with these pioneer units and it would be get to get a confirmation.

    Rami
    Rami
    Reply to  theHam
    5 years ago

    I’ve been asking the same question in regards to capacitive vs resistive and have FINALLY got an answer.
    The 8750 is resistive, the F70DAB is capacitive (: