Android Auto vs. Android Automotive vs. GAS (Google Automotive Services)

If there’s one place you shouldn’t use your phone, it’s your car. While we rely on our portable devices to manage our lives, focusing on the road in front of you and your fellow travelers is important. The information your phone can pull at any time can benefit drivers as long as safety remains a priority. Telling your friends about a traffic delay, viewing upcoming weather conditions during a road trip, and navigating to unknown locations are achieved solely through your smartphone.

Google has tried several methods to combat unsafe driving while keeping your digital life tied closely to your vehicle, from mobile-optimized displays meant to pair with smartphone mounts to fully-optimized operating systems. Google uses three methods: Android Auto, Android Automotive, and Google Automotive Services. These have similar-sounding names and an identical goal: bringing your smartphone’s essential tools and features to the driver’s seat without taking your eyes off the road.

Still, no matter Google’s intentions, these competing services can get confusing. Let’s break down what Android Auto, Android Automotive, and Google Automotive Services are, what they do, and how you’ll experience them.

What is Android Auto?

If you’ve used Android in your car, chances are it’s been Android Auto. Google unveiled Auto at I/O 2014, presenting a massive change in how people interacted with the devices in the car. No longer would drivers have to pull over to respond to a text message or place a phone call. You could do everything directly from the driver’s seat, all with voice commands and minimal touch interaction. Just plug your phone into your vehicle’s USB port — or, as we’d see years later, wirelessly through supported cars or accessories — and you’re good to go.

Android Auto’s legacy UI.

Despite its 2014 unveiling, it took until 2015 for the feature to arrive for Android users, first hitting the road in the Hyundai Sonata. It was an improvement over the sluggish, buggy experiences included in most vehicles at the time. That remains true today.

The current Android Auto UI looks different from what we first saw in 2014. The service received a makeover in 2019, but things were a little simpler at that time. A few tabs along the bottom of the screen allowed you to switch between navigation, media, and Assistant voice commands. The Material Design look was modern for the time, although it’s a far cry from what’s currently on Google devices. Some of the biggest issues with Auto at the time, such as charging and a lack of third-party apps, have been solved as it grew into a modern platform.

Source: Google

Android Auto’s current look.

These days, Auto looks a little more sleek and modern, thanks to a second UI overhaul that rolled out to drivers in 2023. It has a homescreen where it’s easy to select from a multitude of third-party apps, and its media player continues to evolve in new ways. A dedicated split-screen dashboard view allows for navigation, media controls, and incoming notifications to be seen on the same display. A basic app switcher makes swapping between full-screen versions of maps, music, and communication tools super simple.

Android Auto’s dashboard view.

Not everything has changed. Auto remains walled off from the rest of your car’s infotainment system. In some cars, you’ll tap the Auto icon to launch it once your phone is plugged in, and it’ll never fully sync with your car’s other gauges and displays. Meanwhile, for an eight-year-old product, it remains finicky. USB cables continue to cause havoc with drivers everywhere, and we’ve seen phones as new as the Samsung Galaxy S23 series struggle to connect without some bugs interrupting the process.

If you don’t have a display in your car, you may still be familiar with a form of Android Auto. For years, Google offered it as a standalone experience built for phone screens, essentially allowing anyone to get the same experience no matter the age of their vehicle. In 2019, the company announced it would replace Android Auto on smartphones with Assistant Driving Mode, built and powered by the team behind your favorite personal assistant.

Android Auto’s now-defunct phone screen view.

Neither was long for this world. Android Auto disappeared from phones in 2022 after a prolonged death, while Assistant Driving Mode was scrapped in place of adding its base UI to Google Maps.

Connection headaches aside, Android Auto remains a robust platform while out on the road, as handy as you’ll find on Android. While some may prefer a phone mount when driving, relying on the large displays in most modern vehicles keeps your view unobstructed while offering your favorite music, podcast, messaging, and navigation apps is a dream come true.

What is Android Automotive?

If Android Auto is a projection of your smartphone, Automotive does away with your device. Instead, it’s best to think of it as a variant of Android, much like Android TV is an adaptation of Google’s mobile OS for televisions. Automotive is a full-blown operating system built into supported vehicles, which means your smartphone isn’t required, and it’s not involved at all.

Although Google’s dedicated OS for cars has been around since 2017, it’s only started to appear in mainstream consumer vehicles over the last couple of years. Previously, support was limited to cars from niche manufacturers like Polestar, along with development partners Volvo and Audi. It was far from what you’d expect to see from a company as large as Google, but it gave the team time to work out some of the platform’s earliest bugs. While the search giant had announced plenty of partners, it’s only recently that companies like GM have launched vehicles powered by it.

So what exactly is Android Automotive compared to Android Auto? Besides dropping the need for your smartphone, it controls your vehicle’s in-cabin functions. Rather than existing as an application on your car’s infotainment system, it is your car’s infotainment system. It still offers all the pieces you’d want from your phone, such as music, navigation, and Google Assistant, but without being tethered to your phone. Want to listen to Spotify on your drive home? There’s a dedicated app for that, but it won’t use what’s installed on the device in your pocket.

Source: Chevrolet

It’s not only music, messaging, and maps. Android Automotive is also responsible for every interaction with your car’s in-dash display. Climate controls, vehicle information, and backup cams are powered by Android. Even iOS users will launch CarPlay through Automotive, a humorous convergence of the two platforms.

Unlike Auto, which offers a distinct, unique look no matter which car you’re viewing it on, Automotive’s appearance relies on your car’s manufacturer. GM is a perfect example, as Chevy and GMC have different skins for their versions of Automotive, despite their shared parent company. Although the differences are small (a custom icon pack is the biggest change between the two), it shows how little control the driver has over the appearance of Android Automotive compared to the manufacturer.

Source: GMC

With Android Auto, Google speaks directly to end-users. With Automotive, the automaker is the customer, with you — the driver — using a product offered as part of your vehicle. And that brings us back to the final piece of this car-friendly puzzle.

What is Google Automotive Services?

If Android Automotive is a fork of Android designed for your car, Google Automotive Services (GAS) is the app package for it. GAS (yes, the acronym is almost certainly on purpose) is all of your favorite Google system applications rolled into one package. As an end-user, you’ll never interact with GAS by its chosen name. Instead, you’ll see the benefits of this system, specifically if you purchase a car from one of Google’s partners. Ford, GM, and Volvo have agreed to use GAS. Stellantis, meanwhile, has partnered with Amazon for its app’s services.

These application packs are nothing new to Android. Google has relied on them to ensure that phone manufacturers follow specific instructions. Usually, the company has relied on Play Store availability to pressure companies like Samsung into adhering to sets of rules or regulations on how Android works. It’s different with GAS, as Google sells these services to carmakers as an optional buy-in.

As we’ve seen with Stellantis, it’s not a requirement. Considering how many drivers, especially in the U.S., rely on iOS and CarPlay to get from place to place, it makes sense that some automakers (especially smaller companies) might pass on adopting these services. Still, if you’re an Android fan, look for these apps when shopping for a vehicle running Automotive.

Android gets you where you need to be

As confusing as it may sound, Google serves two distinct audiences with Auto, Automotive, and GAS. While general users are likely to interact with Auto the most, Automotive is slowly growing on newer cars as manufacturers turn their attention to the OS. And a full-blown car-friendly operating system is nothing without applications, which is where Google Automotive Services comes into action.

At the end of the day, whether you’re interacting with Android in the car through a tethered connection or a preinstalled OS, Google’s platform helps get you where you need to be. It just goes to show how much power the company has gained in the automotive world.

Conclusion on Android Auto vs. Android Automotive vs. GAS (Google Automotive Services)

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