Driving with Android is already great, but these apps can make it better

Staying safe while driving is vital — not just for you, but for all those other drivers sharing the road. Keeping your eyes and ears focused on what’s happening around you is a must when traveling, whether you’re out on a road trip or just making your way through your daily commute. Of course, the ability to use your phone for navigation, music, and quick voice commands is just as essential, and that’s where driving apps come in.

While Android Auto works great on built-in dashboards, unless you have a newer vehicle — or you’re willing to swap in an expensive replacement head unit — it’s of no use to you anymore. Google retired Android Auto for phone screens with the launch of Android 12, and although a replacement has emerged in Assistant Driving Mode, it’s been seen as a controversial move.

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Of course, Assistant Driving Mode isn’t your only choice. There are several replacement apps for Android Auto on the Play Store, though many of them have sat stagnant for years without updates or enhanced features. That said, with Assistant Driving Mode not quite ready for primetime — in the eyes of some drivers, at least — it’s worth looking at what options are available for car-friendly UIs on Android.

Assistant Driving Mode

I’ll come right out and say it: as boring and predictable as it may be, Assistant Driving Mode is still the best way to control your phone while driving, even if it remains a work-in-progress. Google has made it easier to access the app, both through Bluetooth auto-launch and — thankfully — a home screen shortcut. As simple as it might sound, this was one of the most prominent humps to cross when Driving Mode replaced Android Auto last year, and thankfully, it’s no longer a problem.

Whether or not you like Google’s upgraded UI here will come down to personal preference. In my mind, the Driving Mode home screen has almost everything you could want: quick access to maps, widgets for recommended media and playback controls, and shortcuts for messaging and calling. If there’s something not covered under those options, a quick access voice button makes it easy to issue a new command, while the apps page lets you dive deeper into apps like Spotify and Pocket Casts.

That said, Driving Mode is far from perfect. When you’re actively navigating to a location, the maps panel takes up nearly half of the usable screen space (otherwise, it’s an empty banner with a search bar for addresses). Google isn’t using this space to show live trip progress — it’s just showing the general route you’ve selected. Tapping on this widget just takes you to Maps, rather than keeping you locked in a driving-friendly UI. If you don’t have media playing on your phone — or the playback bar fails to load, which it did for me frequently — there’s no easy or safe way back to Driving Mode. It’s annoying to use when testing while sitting stationary; Performing these actions in a moving car might be downright dangerous.

Google has also made the baffling decision to tie Driving Mode to Maps, which prevents any other navigation app — including Waze, which it owns — to this UI. If you have a preferred service that isn’t Google Maps, you’re completely out of luck here.

A couple of other small annoyances persist as well. Landscape mode is still inexplicably missing, a feature that many prefer when using any sort of GPS app on their phone. It’s not like Maps doesn’t support auto-rotate — there’s no reason for Driving Mode’s UI to miss out on this. The settings page is also sparse, without any options to tune or customize your home screen layout. If current weather conditions are more important to you than recommended Spotify mixes or a shortcut for sending messages, there’s no way to tweak this.

These situations might sound bad — honestly, they are — but none of them are enough to knock Driving Mode off its perch as the best car-friendly UI on Android right now. I’m not sure that says much about the success of Google’s latest driving app, though. Instead, I think it points to how stagnant this field has grown, and how deeply integrated Driving Mode is on the latest versions of Android.

AutoMate

If you spend any time looking for Android Auto replacements, AutoMate will probably be the first you spot. It’s been around for years, basically starting off as a custom-built Auto clone for phones more than a year before Google would offer the same functionality. Unfortunately, AutoMate quickly fell out of popularity once an official driving UI was available. The most recent update arrived nearly a year ago, fixing an Android 11-related crash but otherwise providing no new features.

Generally speaking, AutoMate looks pretty dated, especially by modern standards. Its card-based UI looks straight out of Android 5.0 Lollipop, and while some may find this to be a nostalgic trip down memory lane, most may find it speaks with the Material You-centric design trends of 2022. A speedometer and odometer sit at the top of the app, with a lineup of tabs along the bottom. Unfortunately, AutoMate isn’t optimized for taller displays, so you’ll lose out on some screen real estate when using any modern device.

The four tabs along the bottom — navigation, phone, media, and shortcuts, along with a fifth icon for the home screen — should fit everyone’s needs, even if there’s some bugginess in each category. I had to manually switch to Spotify in the media tab, for example, even though the default service — Pocket Casts, for some reason — wasn’t actively playing music. The navigation tab shows your active destination, speed, and ETA, but it doesn’t seem to show the route you need to follow. The phone tab has support for messaging but places a more significant emphasis on phone calls, making it easy to dial up a friend or family member accidentally.

If you can make do with a dated interface and a weird navigation setup, AutoMate might work as a solid Android Auto replacement. Just don’t expect any future development; this one seems all but dead.

AutoZen

It’s probably best to think of AutoZen as a modern version of AutoMate. It uses a similar tabbed layout, combining the media and maps tabs into one shared page and adding a dedicated notifications panel. There’s no messaging tab, though messages do arrive as notifications with smart and auto-reply options. It supports a wide variety of apps for both navigation and media — even YouTube shows up as a supported app — and dedicated apps for weather and calendar appointments are an excellent addition.

On its free tier, AutoZen runs into the same mapping issue as AutoMate, kicking you directly to the app itself rather than retaining the user within a car-friendly UI. This problem is solved by upgrading to a paid subscription, available for pretty affordable prices (an annual plan is just $7). It doesn’t give you access to Google Maps or Waze in-app, though. Instead, AutoZen is utilizing its mapping service powered by MapBox. Looking through reviews, it seems like the reception for this feature is pretty mixed, with slow rerouting times and, naturally, a lack of choice.


AutoZen is still actively in-development, receiving its latest update in early 2022. It’s not without its faults — and some users might be unwilling to upgrade to a paid plan — but it strikes a solid balance between old-school Android Auto and a modern driving platform. It has yet to hit 100,000 downloads on the Play Store, but there’s certainly promise here for AutoZen to become a breakout hit.

Drivemode

You have to hand it to the Drivemode developers — they didn’t bother trying to clone Android Auto here. This app uses swipes and voice navigation to let drivers safely access must-have features on their phones, often acting as an overlay for apps like Google Maps. Unfortunately, I found the entire interface unnecessarily convoluted. You can disable the constant narration and sound effects that blast during every single action, but the sliders are buried deep within settings. By the time you find them, I’d bet most users are already frustrated.

Drivemode is also rendered unnecessary by Google building Driving Mode into Maps. Sure, this particular app provides an overlay to reach playback controls for whatever you’re jamming to, but you know what else does? Google Maps. Seriously, it’s much faster — and probably safer — to tap the skip button at the bottom of navigation than to perform the actions Drivemode requires. Swipe right, swipe down, tap Spotify, wait for it to open, swipe to the next song, tap to minimize. By then, you’ve been staring at your phone screen for ten seconds — and you missed your exit.

Drivemode may work well for certain users; it’s certainly the most unique app of the bunch I tested. But when its most important feature is rendered redundant by Google’s default Maps app, it’s hard to justify running a second service in the background.

Split-screen apps

There’s one last option you might want to check out, especially if none of those dedicated apps are working for you. All modern Android devices have some sort of split-screen support built-in, and by pairing the navigation app of your choice with a media player, you can basically custom-build your own car-friendly display.

Now, depending on which apps you’re using — and the size of your phone screen — this idea is either brilliant or terrible. I found Spotify compresses pretty poorly unless you’re willing to give it half the screen, but YouTube Music just hides its playback controls behind a quick tap. Obviously, you’re going to miss out on adding services like messaging, though most of that can be handled using Google Assistant with voice activation. Hell, it even works in landscape mode, something Driving Mode still doesn’t support


All in all, it’s not a terrible way to consider using your phone in the car, though it’ll really depend on an app-by-app basis.


Google has the upper-hand here, both in terms of its user base and how Assistant Driving Mode is built into Android. Still, I hope these app developers continue to work towards new ways of (safely) using your phone while driving. Accessing some basic tools like maps and messages is essential, and if Google is going to drag its feet on improving its own experience, a third-party app might be all you need.


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