Android Apps

Android Auto

Late in 2018 I bought Pat a Ford Ecosport. One of the features of this vehicle is a touch screen display with Ford's Sync 3 operating system. Unfortunately, no navigation software is currently available in South Africa for this system. Sync 3 fully supports Android Auto, but at the time of purchase, Android Auto was also not available in South Africa, so I did not give it too much thought.

Early in 2019, Android Auto became available in South Africa, but still I did not put too much effort into it as it needed to be tethered to the vehicle via USB to get it to function with Sync 3. With Bluetooth only, the phone starts Android Auto when the vehicle is switched on, but does not pass control to Sync 3. At the time I was happy enough with the capabilities of Sync 3 for playing music via a USB stick or using its hands-free system for answering the phone. In April, I wanted to use GPS to get to a location, but all the phone mounts I had were broken (uv degradation of the suction cup mechanisms), so had to leave the phone on the passenger seat and rely on voice commands to get to my destination. I find it quite useful to be able to glance at the map to see where the GPS is taking me, which was not possible with the phone on the seat. This prompted me to once again look at Android Auto as this would allow a map to be displayed on the car's display unit.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 with Android Auto

(Android 5.0) The first issue I had with the Note 3 was that when the S-view cover on the phone was closed, the Ecosport's display unit would blank out. To use Android Auto, the cover had to be open. This was a bit of a problem as it's not easy to find somewhere to place the phone with the cover open.

Google Maps worked without any issues. A couple of things I disliked about Google Maps was firstly, there is no speedometer on the map (and hence no overspeed warning); and secondly, the voice guidance gives the notification to turn way too far from the turning point. Evidently, Google is looking into adding a speedo to the app in the near future.


Google Maps navigation screen

Waze seemed to be the answer as it is the only other navigation app that Google has allowed to access Android Auto. A major issue that I found with the Note 3/Android Auto/Waze system is that the phone often found it difficult to get a GPS lock. What I found to help was to go into the phone's location settings (a mission in itself with the phone connected to the car), and then without doing anything, the phone would miraculously get a lock. The speedo and overspeed warning indicator are a bit small, even on the 7" screen of the display unit. It must be really difficult to see on a telephone. Also, the overspeed indicator is red on black which is almost impossible to read when wearing dark glasses.


Waze navigation screen showing the speedo

Waze navigation screen showing the speedo with the overspeed warning

Samsung Galaxy J2 with Android Auto

(Android 5.1.1) On initial attempts, navigation with the J2 worked flawlessly with both Google Maps and Waze. The only problem I had on my first trials was that the volume of the guiding voice was unbelievably low. I looked everywhere for assistance, but eventually found by trial and error, that Android Auto takes its volume from the connected device's media volume control and not that of the head unit.

What I found to be a real irritation with the J2 and Android Auto was when trying to type on the vehicle's screen, the Android Auto "menu" bar remains on the screen when the keyboard is active. This means several important keys (such as the spacebar) are hidden.


J2 showing Android Auto's "menu" bar still active with the keyboard up

Note 3 showing Android Auto's "menu bar" hidden as expected

As Android Auto (or Google) starts giving possible destinations after typing a word, it is possible to get to a destination from this. However, only one possible destination can be seen between the keyboard and the search box at a time. Scrolling jumps the possibilities by three, so it is more or less impossible to get to the destination you are looking for on the car's screen. The key to remove the keyboard is the one on the bottom left of the keyboard in the image above, and this is hidden when using Android Auto from the J2. Fortunately, the key on the top right of the keyboard (next to the zero) brings up a keyboard on the phone so one can type the destination on the phone.

Overall Impressions

From my limited testing, I have found Waze to be better than Google Maps for navigation in the Android Auto configuration (personally, I prefer Sygic, but Google has excluded any other navigational software from accessing Android Auto). Waze's speedo and the overspeed warning is a big advantage for me over Google Maps. Maybe when they update their app, it will change my impression.

What I really liked about the system was that Sync 3 continued playing the music from the connected USB stick even while the navigation software was doing verbal navigation guidance. The head unit's volume control only changed the volume of the music from the USB stick and did very little to that coming from Android Auto.

The vehicle's hands-free controls for taking a telephone call works as expected, but is a bit tardy to respond. Both the background music and the navigating voice are stopped during the call. However, on hanging up, control is not returned to the navigational screen (even though voice guidance continues after the call), it remains on the phone screen and must be manually changed back to the navigation screen. Sync 3 automatically changes back to whatever screen it was on before the call.

Dislikes

It takes rather a long while for the app to get up and running after you start your car.

Android Auto really finds it difficult to understand my voice if I try using voice commands. In one case, it understood "Dros" to be "bus" and I got a myriad of results for all kinds of bus related venues. In another, I tried "Malboer" and I first got "Malibu" and then "Marlborough", never Malboer, so I really don't know how one should pronounce anything that has a vaguely South African origin. To me this renders Google's whole idea of replacing Android Auto with the upgraded Google Assistant as being rather pointless, as Google Assistant is largely voice driven.

In both Google Maps and Waze, the next turn notification box is excessively large. It blocks out a rather large portion of the map.

Conclusion

As I was only interested in the navigational capabilities of Android Auto, I only commented on those. I am not too interested in music streaming as I prefer listening to music I like, not what an AI thinks I like.

As far as the navigation goes, both Waze and Google Maps will get you where you want to go, and both of them are easy enough to use within Android Auto. Personally, I would like to see a third party app, such as Sygic, given access to the system.

(16 May 2019)

Update 1

I recently used the Ecosport on a journey of about 150km and thought it would be an ideal opportunity to try out the Android Auto navigation. For the trip, I used the Note 3 as the controlling device. On the outbound trip, I used Waze. For the first 50km, everything worked perfectly, getting Waze notifications of hazards along the way. Then routing just stopped with the map stationary. As I couldn't stop, I got Pat to disconnect the USB cable for a few seconds and then reinsert it. This seemed to do the trick, as once Android Auto reconnected to the head unit and the navigation was activated, Waze recalculated the route from the current position. Unfortunately, this happened three more times on the trip.

For the homeward trip I decided to use Google Maps. This worked flawlessly. It did offer me a faster route on two occasions, with no reason why, so I continued on the original route. Unfortunately, I should have heeded the change of route as there was a really serious accident just past the Grasmere Toll Plaza. The police diverted all traffic onto the S-bound carriage way with the instruction to "find an alternative route". I really gained respect for Google Maps here. It took me on a service road behind the Engen filling station near the Grasmere Toll Plaza and filtered me back onto a completely different route home.

Google Maps did hang once on the way home and with Waze hanging four times on the outward trip, there is either some issue with my hardware or a bug in Android Auto. However, it would appear that Google Maps is more stable with Android Auto than Waze.

(updated: 26 May 2019)

Update 2

With the latest update of Google Maps (11 June 2019), a speedometer has been included on the maps. There are a few shortcomings:

  • The speedo is only shown when navigation is active - it does not show on the map when driving without navigation;
  • The speedo does not indicate the speed limit, nor when the speed limit is exceeded;
  • The speedo does not work with Android Auto.

(updated: 15 June 2019)

Update 3 (Note 1)

This is not really about Android Auto, but rather Sync 3 refusing a device access to it via Android Auto.

I recently updated my old Note 1 phone (N7000) to Android 7.1.2 via LineageOS 14.1. This is a major upgrade over the Android 4.1.2 which was Samsung's last official OS upgrade for the N7000. This LineageOS 14.1 version seems to be the last stable version for the N7000 as the developer gave up during development of the LineageOS 15.1 version (Android 8.1). Most things work in LineageOS 15.1, but there seems to be a problem with Bluetooth connectivity. BT is quite important when using a phone with Android Auto for making the initial connection to the car's head unit.

I use the N7000 regularly as a navigation device in my bakkie with a CD drive phone mount. I like having Waze active because of its user generated traffic reports.

Android Auto installed with no problem. It works in standalone mode, but as soon as I connected it to the Ecosport, I got an error when trying to activate it.


Message from Android Auto on the Note 1 when trying to connect to Sync 3

(updated: 5 September 2019)

Update 4

Recently, when I wanted to update fuel prices in Waze from Android Auto, I found that Waze only has a subset of the reporting options available under Android Auto and fuel prices is not one of those.


Waze's reporting options under Android Auto

Waze's reporting options as a standalone app

One item I really would like to see in Waze for Android Auto is the fuel price. It is quite painful having to disconnect your phone when filling up to enter the standalone Waze app to update the fuel price.

(updated: 15 September 2019)

Update 5

Earlier this month (September), the I got a message on the Ecosport's head unit that there was an update available. The standalone version didn't call for this update, and there was no update available from Google Play.


Android Auto calling for an update from the vehicle's head unit

Not knowing how big the update was, I waited until I was again in range of my home wifi before trying the update. It only took a couple of seconds, so not too much was downloaded - I'm not sure whether the update was to the vehicle or to the phone either. The next screen popped up:


Android Auto update completed

The Android Auto home screen was completely different after this update.


The new Android Auto home screen

Unfortunately, I don't have an image of the older home screen, but the map screen was also different (compare it with one of the map screens shown earlier - the "menu bar" is different).


The Android Auto map screen with Waze active

(updated: 16 September 2019)