Volkswagen Unintentionally Demonstrated Android Auto Is a Fantastic Concept

Volkswagen’s adoption of Android Automotive sparks controversy on two separate fronts. On one hand, it’s the update policy that defines the lifetime of a vehicle as a maximum period of 15 years. On the other hand, it’s the limited support that a car would eventually get.
Android Auto vs. Android Automotive 6 photos
Photo: Bogdan Popa/autoevolution/Polestar
Google Maps on Android AutoThe Android Auto home screenAndroid Automotive in Polestar 2Google Maps on Android Automotive in Polestar 2Android Automotive in Polestar 2
As far as the latter is concerned, Volkswagen unintentionally demonstrated that choosing Android Auto over Android Automotive is the better way to go.

For context, Volkswagen Group will use Android Automotive in many of its future models. The company is embracing Google’s operating system to power the smart capabilities of its cars, especially as it’s focusing more on EVs.

Volkswagen already offers Android Auto in most of its vehicles, but going for Android Automotive will provide drivers with new features.

Android Auto vs. Android Automotive

Google’s naming convention makes it difficult to distinguish Android Auto from Android Automotive. Despite looking similar, they are completely different solutions.

Android Auto is a projection of the phone screen onto the display on the dashboard. It requires a smartphone and a connection to the media receiver to run.

The entire experience is powered by the mobile device, and Android Auto runs on top of the operating system already installed in the car.

It provides easy access to applications installed on the phone, including navigation and music streaming, and also supports hands-free input via Google Assistant.

Google Maps on Android Auto
Photo: Google
Android Automotive is a fully featured operating system that is installed at the hardware level in the car. It is the OS that powers the infotainment experience, so it replaces the software typically developed in-house by carmakers or received from a third party.

Android Automotive does not require a phone to run and has deeper access to vehicle functions, including air conditioning, seat settings, and battery range. This allows the operating system to provide more advanced features, such as charging stop recommendations based on the existing range.

Things get a little bit more confusing when it comes to the relationship between Android Auto and Android Automotive. You can run Android Auto on top of Android Automotive, but you can’t run Android Automotive on top of Android Auto. This is because Android Automotive is the operating system that serves as the foundation of the infotainment unit, so it allows other apps to run on top of it. Android Auto is just a mirrored UI provided by a mobile phone.

How Volkswagen unwittingly admitted Android Auto rocks

The German carmaker is betting big on Android Automotive in the long term, but one of the challenges it’s trying to deal with is the update policy.

The company says it’ll ship updates for the operating system for up to 15 years, which it believes represents the entire lifetime of a car.

Leaving this controversial estimate aside, carmakers setting up update policies is a new world problem for companies that have until now been focused on the mechanical side of things. With the tech and the automotive worlds combining, carmakers are now trying to do both, so taking care of software is going to become the new norm.

Volkswagen’s struggle to find the right way to deliver updates to its Android Automotive-powered vehicles shows how brilliant Android Auto and CarPlay actually are.

Compared to a fully featured operating system, they are just mirroring off the data of the mobile device, so everything is powered by the phone. Carmakers don’t have to care that much about the software, as mobile operating system developers must make sure Android Auto and CarPlay work properly. Car manufacturers only need to focus on the integration into their vehicles, but otherwise, Google and Apple are in charge of the update component.

Android Automotive in Polestar 2
Photo: Polestar
The interface and the features of Android Auto and CarPlay can be continuously updated without involving carmakers in the process. It’s not a secret some car manufacturers have been painfully slow in the release of software updates. Google and Apple already have the know-how to do this right, and the frequent updates they ship are living proof.

With Android Auto and CarPlay, carmakers can remove the software update burden from their shoulders, leaving tech companies to do what they already do best.

Sure enough, without using software that is more deeply integrated into their cars, automakers eventually give up on more advanced capabilities. Having Google Maps monitor the battery range and look for nearby charging stations is definitely great. But carmakers would have to make sure such features work properly, and given their experience with software, I have my doubts this would happen seamlessly at first.

At the end of the day, Android Auto and CarPlay remain the easiest way to deliver up-to-date mobile integration into the vehicle, despite the investments in Android Automotive. Volkswagen knows this very well, but the automotive industry has already adopted a trend that seems to be pushing everybody to a deeper focus on software. It won’t take long until carmakers realize that delivering timely software updates isn’t as easy as it sounds.
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About the author: Bogdan Popa
Bogdan Popa profile photo

Bogdan keeps an eye on how technology is taking over the car world. His long-term goals are buying an 18-wheeler because he needs more space for his kid’s toys, and convincing Google and Apple that Android Auto and CarPlay deserve at least as much attention as their phones.
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