Android P makes Volvo’s in-car infotainment system even better

Well, until something better comes along.

Android Auto has been around for years. I know Android Auto when I see it. What's running inside a sleek Volvo at Google I/O isn't Android Auto. This is an automobile running full-blown Android P. We've seen no shortage of pure Android-powered cars at I/O in years past, but this crimson XC40 is different: it's one of the first cars in the world to fully integrate Google services, like Google Maps and the Play Store, right onto automotive hardware. That's right: you can finally download apps straight onto your car.

You'll handle this task (and most others, really) on what looks like an Android tablet grafted onto the car's center console. Android P isn't optimized for cars out of the gate, so Volvo had to handle much of the interface work here. Unsurprisingly, it skinned Android P to resemble its existing Sensus interface, which features four constantly updating rows: from top to bottom, we have Google Maps, media, your phone, and calendar entries. They're all pretty self-explanatory, but there a few things worth noting. Google's Maps completely replaces Volvo's own navigation system and works as well as it always does (assuming your in-car network connection is working the way it should). More importantly, you can feel free to jump into your media or other apps while Maps navigation is running, since the turn-by-turn readout is also pushed to a secondary display in the middle of the dashboard.

Poke around the tablet long enough and you'll find a Play Store icon that ushers you into Google's in-car marketplace. It's definitely not the Play Store you're probably used to, though: Google told us there are "thousands of apps" that have been pre-approved for use on in-car Android systems, though most of the ones I got to try were streaming services like Spotify and Deezer. There are a few limitations to keep in mind, though. For one, Google says — for now, anyway — that you can't download and install apps while you're driving. Fair enough. It's important to note that you more than likely can't interact with some apps the way you would on your smartphone, either. We're told that you couldn't, say, skim through the entirety of your Google Play Music library on the touchscreen to find a song — the experience is limited to a couple of different interactions that are already enabled in Android Auto today. For that, you're better off holding down a button on the steering wheel and asking Google Assistant for some help.

That doesn't mean you can't interact via touch with these apps at all. Swiping to the left on, say, the bar icon for currently playing media provides quick playback and save controls. Developers are in charge of defining which actions you can perform with a swipe and a tap, but if you've seen media and app controls take up residence in your Android phone's notification shade, you basically know exactly what to expect.

Since we're talking about a car here, you can also fiddle with in-cabin temperature and comfort settings through taps on the screen or with commands issues to Google Assistant. That latter bit failed a few times during our demo, but hey — flubbed demos are nothing new around here. And you don't need to worry about losing your precious climate settings when someone else inevitable gets behind your steering wheel. They're saved to a personal profile, and the car supports multiple profiles for different drivers. The one thing that isn't clear right now is exactly how the car will tell who is settling in the driver's seat — you can authenticate by plugging in your phone, but Google and Volvo are also exploring ways to drivers to identify themselves with different keyfobs.

While Volvo has done an impressive job painting over stock Android P with its Sensus interface, a few touches here that feel distinctly Google-y. There's a physical home button at the bottom of the touchscreen, and if you swipe down from the top of the display, you'll get a fairly standard notifications shade. (You know, just with an appropriately large font size.) At this point, though, Volvo's take on Android P is still very much a work in progress — what else would you expect considering its first Android-powered cars are about a year away from market? Even so, Volvo has made it clear that Android will fuel the future of its in-car entertainment, to the point where it's shifting away from its own in-house operating system altogether. The carmaker gets that things could shift and a new platform could ascend to dominance over the next few years, so it hasn't ruled out the possibility of making a switch down the road.

In the meantime, Volvo and its rivals are going to keep weaving Android into their cars. If what I saw today is any indication, that's a very good thing for anyone who will soon need some new wheels.

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