Waze has cooked up a new dashboard integration for Android Auto that allows drivers to keep their eyes off their phones for their directions and focused on the road ahead.
The navigation app is now projected directly onto the car’s infotainment screen via Android Auto, which, in theory, makes Waze’s real-time alerts less distracting and more accessible than when you use the regular smartphone version.
The phone version was the only place you could use Waze up until now, which put a lot of drivers in a tough spot. Do you look away from the road at your phone to take advantage of the app’s unique ability to mark potential obstacles, or just let them pass without mention for the next driver?
I got a chance to take an early test drive around New York City with Waze for Android Auto to put the system through its paces before the public rollout. The integration succeeds in bringing the Waze experience to the car’s dashboard for the most part, although there are some bumps along the road that might throw drivers off course.
My high-tech chariot was a fresh red Chevy Cruze, which ran on diesel and drove like a dream. Its MyLink infotainment system served as the platform for Android Auto, which was integrated directly onto the dashboard’s 7-inch touchscreen. Cycling between the car’s built-in options and the smartphone menu was easy, as I jammed out to the Sirius XM radio for most of my drive time while running other apps.
I’m primarily an iOS user, so once my Google Pixel loaner was plugged into the car via USB, I was able to launch Waze from the navigation icon on the left bottom corner of the screen. (Android Auto still requires a USB connection to work, but wireless connectivity was announced at Google I/O 2016 and is coming soon.)
Hitting the road
My first attempt at using the new integration in the city wasn’t successful. The address I typed into the Waze search bar resulted in nothing but a spinning circle as it struggled to pull up the route, even after killing the engine and restarting the car.
I discovered my Pixel’s network connection was the issue, which meant I had to take advantage of the Cruze’s built-in Wi-Fi hotspot to access any of the smartphone features. Once I was connected, I was able to use Waze as intended — but I had to restart the phone and reconnect it to the Wi-Fi every time I started the car, which added a painful number of steps to the process.
This hopefully won’t be a common issue for drivers when the integration is rolled out, but it highlights a potential flaw for people driving in areas without reliable network coverage.
I was able to get Waze to work as advertised, so I took the car for a spin outside of the city to give the system a real test on the highway, where the app has been the most useful for me in the past.
The app’s real time, crowdsourced road alerts make driving less of a solitary experience, along with its more obvious benefits of highlighting potential pitfalls (and Dunkin Donuts stores) on the road ahead.
Once I plugged in my destination, I was able to use my finger to scroll ahead on the touchscreen to check out where the route led, or just tap the arrow next to the mileage and ETA estimates to check out some more details, like alternate routes. I experienced a momentary lag where I was driving ahead of the route’s directions, but that only happened once, and corrected after only a few moments.
The large screen is where the integrated version of Waze really shines. When I’ve used the app in the past, I’ve been distracted by all the information on my phone’s small display, especially when it’s in my hand or on my lap. By laying everything out in front of me, I was able to take note of everything on the road ahead, both on the screen and IRL.
I felt much more confident pulling up the Waze alerts menu, which is easily accessible at all times via a round orange icon on the screen. Reporting an alert is no more difficult than changing the radio station on the dashboard, a much less laborious process than tapping through the menu on a phone.
The actual navigation was exactly what I’d expect from Waze. I drove about an hour outside the city without a hitch, and the system later confronted a surprise closed street in the middle of Manhattan with no problem, taking me exactly where I needed to go within the maze of one-way roads and wider avenues, where I usually walk or ride the subway underground to get around.
The only other issue I had with the system was using voice commands. I tried in vain to tell Waze where I wanted to go, but was rebuffed at every attempt.
Once I was off the road, I took a closer look at the connected phone and activated Google Assistant on the device. That solved the problem, and I was able to use a simple voice command to enter a new destination. The feature worked — but again, it felt like there were too many steps needed to get there for a system that promises to be fully integrated.
Bringing Waze to your dashboard
Waze isn’t the first navigation app to make its way to Android Auto-connected dashboards. The automotive platform launched back in 2015 with Google Maps built in, but this is the first chance for drivers who prefer Waze to use their favorite app after a long wait. Google has owned the company since 2013, and first teased a Waze integration for Android Auto in 2015.
That delay, to some degree, comes from the challenge of translating the app’s experience from the phone to the dashboard.
“It was a big challenge and took quite a while to get the design for this implementation,” Waze Product Lead Jens Baron told me over the phone. “Android Auto is a framework that has to be approved for all kinds of driver distraction guidelines around the globe.”
The new, less distracting version of Waze could lead to even more user engagement — in my short time driving with it, I found myself much more likely to make a report on the road. Baron told me increased engagement is something Waze is hoping for, but hasn’t estimated how much of a boost the Android Auto integration might bring.
“At the moment it’s still early, so we’ll have to roll it out and see,” he said. “Later we’ll analyze the data and see if there’s more reporting, as soon as we have some time to get the product out. Maybe we’ll learn even more for the main app, and for Android Auto in general.”
Some features still aren’t fully functional at launch, though; for now, you can only use voice commands to tell Waze to lead you to a specific address or pre-programmed “Home” or “Work” destination. Waze says voice will eventually be expanded, adding the ability to report hazards and more in the future.
The mobile app’s social features like carpool, “beep beep,” gas price tracking, and map chat will also be included in Auto-specific updates, along with the Waze speedometer, the exclusion of which elicited “strong feedback” from the company’s pool of 5,000 beta testers according to Baron. He said there’s no set schedule for the updates, but it’s “something we’re looking to introduce very quickly.”
I checked out the integrated Google Maps feature too, to really compare how Waze stacked up. My route with Google Maps was noticeably smoother than the Waze navigation, with no lag whatsoever and more clearly marked merge directions.
Part of that superiority came from the cleaner interface, which is less cluttered than Waze — but it’s the realtime alerts and driver interaction that make the app so popular in the first place, drawing in 65 million monthly active users across the globe.
The Android Auto integration brings a slightly stripped-down version of Waze to dashboards, but that in itself doesn’t make it an inferior product, especially with updates on the way. Just like the mobile versions of the maps, what you should use really comes down to personal preference — you’ll still get directions to where you need to go.
Waze for Android Auto launches today, and is available for all Android Auto-enabled vehicles around the world.