This week marked the final nail in the coffin for Android Auto on phone screens. Google launched the service as part of a big version 2.0 update way back in 2016, condensing the full car-friendly experience down into something that could fit on a Galaxy S7 or first-gen Pixel phone. It rendered third-party alternatives like AutoMate — which, at the time, filled the gap for owners of older cars looking to use their smartphones on the road safely.
At the time, I was one of them. Previously, my smartphone experience in the car consisted of keeping Maps open in split-screen with whatever media player I had running at that time. Auto’s phone version changed all of that. I could safely answer incoming text messages and phone calls, switch between Google Play Music and Pocket Casts, and even view upcoming weather conditions, all from a single screen. It was, to be honest, a total game-changer for how my phone and my car worked together.
Eventually, I leased a new vehicle with built-in Auto support, bringing my reliance on the smartphone-friendly version to a close. As luck would have it, I couldn’t have picked a better time. A month after my car hit the road, Google announced a brand-new interface for Android Auto — alongside Assistant Driving Mode, a full replacement for Auto’s phone mode. At the time, it seemed like a change that would benefit both sides: Auto was getting a sleek makeover, while Assistant Driving Mode leveraged the power of Google’s voice assistant to suggest specific actions and commands.
Three years later, Google’s car-focused announcements at I/O feel more like a curse than a blessing. While Android Auto continues to push forward with new features and a slick dashboard mode in cars, drivers with older vehicles unequipped with large touchscreens are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Although Android Auto for phone screens is completely dead, Google does offer Assistant Driving Mode as a replacement. Unfortunately, it’s a poor substitute.
In 2019, Driving Mode was shown off as something worthy of making Android Auto users jealous. Assistant would provide contextual details about your morning commute, offering specific suggestions on what to do next in an easy-to-view list. Google called it a “personalized dashboard,” filled with recommended destinations, missed calls or texts, and more. You could resume your search for nearby coffee shops, or pick up a phone call just by using your voice.
Some of those features are there in the version of Assistant Driving Mode that eventually shipped, but it’s clear something went wrong during development. Not only was Driving Mode delayed by more than a year before it finally hit smartphones, but many of its promised features never arrived. It took more than two years after I/O 2019 for a home screen UI to arrive on the platform, and once it did, that friendly contextual feed powered by Assistant was nowhere to be seen.
These screenshots are from October, but Assistant Driving Mode has changed so little since then, they look identical to the experience you’ll find today.
Instead, Assistant Driving Mode today exists as a less powerful, somewhat shinier version of Android Auto. The home screen comprises a single destination, a collection of media suggestions from Spotify and several Google-owned services I don’t use (Podcasts want me to listen to This American Life, I guess?), and shortcuts for placing a phone call or text. An app grid is filled with supported services, though it’s well below what was once available on Auto. No Facebook Messenger, no Google Voice, no WhatsApp.
An established pattern for Google
On its own, the failure to turn Assistant Driving Mode into a worthy Android Auto replacement would be frustrating enough, even as it seemingly exists without a purpose. Auto’s UI was outdated, sure, but there was nothing fundamentally broken about the experience. Honestly, its simplification isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. Fewer features translate to fewer distractions, assuming drivers aren’t simply exiting the car-friendly UI to perform additional tasks.
Overall, however, it marks a concerning pattern for Google: killing well-liked, dated apps for lesser replacements purely to have something new to present to users. If you’re frustrated over Assistant Driving Mode’s lack of landscape support, or its inability to use third-party navigation apps — including Waze, which Google owns — or simply how difficult it is to launch, just know this isn’t a new feeling for long-time Android users.
It’s hard not to think of the transition from Google Play Music to YouTube music several years ago, a process that caused plenty of satisfied subscribers — including myself — to flee for alternate services. At launch, YouTube Music lacked widget support, library sorting, and, infamously, a Wear OS app. Many of these missing features eventually arrived, but it took years and years of updates. Meanwhile, Assistant Driving Mode’s biggest change since last summer was a much-needed home screen shortcut. It’s nice to have, but not exactly an exciting addition.
I miss you, Inbox.😢
The story behind Inbox is even more upsetting. Anyone who used Google’s experimental — and wonderful — alternate email app likely remembers its death, with the company proclaiming that the features we loved would eventually make their way to Gmail. Well, it’s 2022, and I’m still not seeing bundles in my inbox. And while Gmail wasn’t necessarily a new service made to replace Inbox — it existed well before and well after the other app’s demise — the similarities are still obvious.
Certainly, there are examples of this sort of app transition working, and working well. Google separating Photos from Plus is one of the smartest decisions the company has made in the last decade. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to think of examples of change for the worse.
Drivers stuck in limbo
As it stands, drivers without newer vehicles don’t have much of a choice in what to do next. Google would love for them to suffer through Assistant Driving Mode, all while hoping the company eventually adds new features and expands on its original concept for the platform. Unfortunately, Driving Mode is not available in every country, as supported regions are still limited. As for what drivers without access to its latest car-friendly UI should do instead — or when we can expect a more global rollout — Google refused to comment.
If you’re willing to sideload, older Android Auto APKs are still working on smartphones, bringing phone screen mode back to drivers who want it. It’s possible Google could kill this functionality any day now, though for now, it might be enough for many ex-users to get by. Or you can check out one of several Auto alternatives available, though most of them aren’t very good.
My biggest fear, of course, is that Google’s lack of willingness to fix and improve Assistant Driving Mode in a timely manner will force drivers to use their phones without any kind of car-friendly UI, making the roads more dangerous for everyone in the process . Instead, the dev team behind Driving Mode needs to get to work, expanding availability and access, improving how the app’s current features work, and releasing new tools to bring it back up to par with Android Auto. It’s been more than three years since this app was announced — waiting for basic services like landscape mode and third-party mapping tools just won’t cut it anymore.