Technology can be a wild beast.
Anyone who lives and breathes tech knows the rules are always changing. One day a certain smartphone, say the Google Pixel, is the coolest thing ever, the next you find out everyone has moved on to some other Android model. You try a new travel website that uses machine learning to find the best deals, and then you realize there’s a new app for your tablet that works much better.
Driving today is equally variable. Climb into a Ford Escape and you’ll see an interface that’s been upgraded from the one the car had a few years ago. (Thankfully, it’s much better.) And if you switch between a few different cars for test drives at a dealership, there’s a good chance you’ll get confused about how to perform simple tasks, like syncing your phone over Bluetooth.
That’s why, on a recent test of the 2017 VW Beetle Dune, it became clear how important a consistent interface is for the modern digital age. The car itself is fantastic — it uses a lower profile and has fine accents along the trim that are a throwback to the days of the original Southern California version. But what impressed me most is that once I hooked up my Samsung Galaxy S6 phone over USB, the interface for Android Auto popped up immediately.
I’ve tested Apple CarPlay many times, but I had forgotten how slick Android Auto is. There’s a simple row of icons at the bottom. (You don’t even need to bother setting up Bluetooth, although that’s the only way to do a hands-free phone call.) You select a map icon — one for your phone and one for music. In the center, there’s a button you can use to access the Google Assistant, although in my tests it was obviously a simplified version.
Mostly, the voice assistant helps you get directions. You can ask questions, but we’re not talking about the bot in the Google Home speaker here. In response to most of my test questions, the Android Auto bot kept saying it could not help with that. Those same questions lead to a much better result on Google Home. That said, the feature is not as distracting in the car. If you ask about pizza or seafood, for example, the bot will likely show a list of local eateries.
The interface is clean and tidy, just like the one on the phone. I didn’t have to learn anything. In Google Maps, I already knew where to find the option to do a search. Even the voice was familiar. In Google Music, I picked an option to see my most recently played tracks. It’s slick because it is exactly the same as you see on the phone itself, which can help prevent distracting driving. You can plug in, punch in a song you want, get directions, and focus on driving.
It’s worth noting that this is a good match for the Beetle Dune for another reason. The car is designed for having fun when you drive and for taking corners fast. It’s mostly about style, as well — the car is incredibly eye-catching, so much so that people kept asking about it when I parked. Since the focus is on driving and style, using Android Auto meant I didn’t have to learn how to use any of the dashboard options. There’s no adaptive cruise control or steering aids.
Overall, the interface helped me focus on what was important — that is, making sure I put the turbocharged engine through its paces on some curvy roads.