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Android Auto can have giant screens like this, but limited software means you'll often still need your phone.
Enlarge / Android Auto can have giant screens like this, but limited software means you’ll often still need your phone.

Android Auto and its big brother, the Android Automotive OS (AAOS), are getting a bit better at being a real computer. As spotted by, the home screen interface will now start labeling apps that only work in parked mode. They get a little “P” badge on top of the icon. Previously this would show an error message only after you opened it.

Android Auto and Android Automotive OS are both Google’s in-car interface and mostly share the same apps. Android Auto is powered by your phone, which plugs into the car and takes over the dashboard screen, replacing (for a time) the built-in infotainment system. The Android Automotive OS takes Google’s “infotainment replacement” interface and builds it right into the car as the only infotainment system. With Android Automotive OS (AAOS) car companies can ship Android as the car OS, just as phone manufacturers ship Android as the phone OS. The OS is skinnable, so it often ends up looking different, but that was the idea it started with.

Google's GameSnacks icon, with a "P" badge indicating it only works while parked.
Enlarge / Google’s GameSnacks icon, with a “P” badge indicating it only works while parked.

One of the more frustrating things about both flavors of Android Auto is that you have this big, powerful car screen in front of you that could be more useful than a phone but never is. Android Auto and its apps all assume you are blasting down the road at 60 mph while using them and rarely consider the possibility that you might be stopped at a red light or in park or that the touch screen is being used by a passenger. This means for most apps the safety lockouts are always on, so you’re only allowed to view nine Google Maps results, and you can never see your entire music library, among other limitations.

Teslas have access to an entire Steam gaming library now when parked, yet Android cars can’t even use Google Maps well. AAOS especially knows what gear you’re in and knows if there’s someone in the passenger seat. We’ve even seen cars that take the step of showing a “security lockouts disabled” message when you have a passenger, but the obvious next step of opening up the app interface to more complex tasks never actually happens, and then you’re reaching for your phone.

Typically Auto and AAOS apps are all flagged as “Distraction optimized,” which means they are designed for use while driving. You don’t have to do this, though, and both interfaces support the concept of “Parked” apps. Almost no one uses the feature, though, (our last count of AAOS apps was “37,” so almost no one uses anything, really) and the primary example of an installable app is Google’s GameSnacks, which is just a few simple games for your car.

Google is working toward making AAOS more functional while parked. The company has a parked-only build of Chrome now. A lot of Android Automotive OS cars like the Polestar 2 have luxurious iPad-like screens attached to the center console, and using Chrome to check out where you want to go or maybe place a food order for pickup is a great use case. Auto is also starting to get video apps like PBS KIDS and Crunchyroll, though there still isn’t a YouTube app. Starting to label apps as “parked only” is the tiniest baby step in making Google’s car computer a little more useful. Hopefully, there’s more of a focus on bringing back some of the usual “Android” power to Android Automotive.

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