Android Auto finally gets Waze road alert integration

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.

Moto Z turned the modular smartphone from pipe dream to a reality

In short time, Motorola has turned the modular smartphone from pipe dream into reality. And not just any reality, but a successful one at that.

This success comes after a few public trials of modularity that, well, didn’t pan out so well… or at all. LG immediately comes to mind with its LG G5’ Friends line of hard to find, awkwardly engineered accessories that require users to power down the phone to swap one out. And who can forget Google’s troubled, but promising Project Ara concept that never came to fruition?

There was no shortage of buzz around modularity in the world of smartphones before the Moto Z, but almost nothing to show for it. But with its Moto Mods program, Motorola has grown from modularity student thanks to its early work on Ara to essentially teaching the workshop in how such an ambitious idea can succeed in the mobile space.

Moto obviously wasn’t the first to leap onto the buzz around modular smartphones. But compared to the others, its first attempt was remarkably solid in that it didn’t require the high levels of sacrifice that the others did.

There’s no risk of accidentally shutting off your phone, virtually no learning curve and no if’s or but’s about compatibility. Moto Mods are plug-and-play at its finest. They just work.

The MotoMod difference

Many, including myself, were convinced that every aspect of a smartphone had to be swappable to truly be considered modular. But Moto met expectations halfway with the Moto Z, making the core guts of the phone internal while allowing for more functions through an magnetic port. Instead of putting its focus on the gimmick, so to speak, Motorola let the growing variety of Moto Mods speak to the strength that stems from choosing to seal up the device.

These mods aren’t just convenient and clever, people really seem to have taken to them. At the launch of the new Moto Z2 Force, Motorola vice president of North America Rudi Kalil, he shared that user satisfaction is between 80-90% for Moto Mods, whereas general satisfaction with accessories is usually much lower. Impressive that the user satisfaction is so high, especially given the high cost of some Moto Mods.

Not just that, consumers are actually using the Mods they buy to fill specific needs on a regular basis. Looking at usage data, Jim Thiede, a product manager at Motorola, told us that people who buy the JBL SoundBoost Mod are using it for 8-10 hours per week on average. The Insta Share pico projector mod and Hasselblad True Zoom mods get about 5-6 hours of use weekly.

The real kicker Moto has discovered: people who tend to buy one Moto Mod usually follow through with buying another.

Honor thy customer

The ease with which one can connect a Moto Mod to a Moto Z phone is a big part of the appeal. So is the added feature that comes from using one. But perhaps the most persuasive aspect to buying into Moto’s modular lineup is that it comes with the comfort of knowing that each and every one of these investments works with its Z phones from the past, present and future.

The worst part of buying a new phone is loading it up with pricey accessories, but Moto Mods eliminates that process entirely. This is good, as Moto’s new Moto Z2 Force and Moto Z2 Play each offer a few noteworthy improvements that might make upgrading something that you’ll want to consider. Things like a hearty boost in power and a slim, streamlined design are small, but noticeable changes that might make all the difference for some.

It’s not just Moto in the ring

While I’m not saying that Motorola has found the future of smartphones with its Moto Mods program, there’s definitely something exciting about offering consumers customization that other brands are taking note of.

You’ve likely heard about Android co-creator Andy Rubin’s Essential Phone, the latest flagship to join the ranks. It, too, can expand its abilities with optional accessories.

It’s obvious that the potential of modularity planted its seed in many minds some time ago and it’s awesome to see how companies, even big ones, have tried to crack the egg. Some have failed and honestly, it’s difficult to tell how “successful” Moto’s success story really is.

But from my chair, things are looking good. So good that down the line, it wouldn’t surprise me to find even more competitors adding an element of modularity to their products.

And unless one has figured out how to successfully hot-swap components without diminishing the user experience, Moto has likely landed on the de facto method for smartphone modularity for the foreseeable future.

Google’s app that helps loved ones find you in an emergency is now on iOS

Smartphones allow us to stay in contact with our loved ones more closely than ever before, but some of the most important features, like location sharing, are only functional when everyone uses the same operating system on their devices.

That’s about to change. Google is bringing its Trusted Contacts location sharing app to iOS, making it even easier for families that span the Android-iPhone divide to keep track of each other during emergencies.

The app comes to iOS after debuting for Android last year. Users can now proactively share their location with their in-group or search for the last place a friend or loved one was active on their phone if they suddenly go silent, no matter their OS.

iOS devices already have a similar feature with Find My Friends, but Trusted Contacts expands the scope of the tracking abilities across operating systems. That means a loved one with an iPhone can pinpoint the last active location of a Samsung Galaxy S8, for example, and vice versa.

The new iOS Trusted Contacts app comes with a round of updates for the service for all users. You can now add people to your “trusted contacts” list by their phone number, and the app sends an SMS to them to connect.

Users can also choose how quickly their location will be automatically shared if they know they’ll be away from their phone and unable to answer. The default setting had been five minutes, but now the response time can be set at any time from immediately to an hour.

Privacy might be a concern for people who don’t want their loved ones to have a constant bead on their location — but if it’s that big of a deal, those people don’t have to download the app. Google told Mashable last year at the launch of the Android version that Trusted Contacts is “necessary” no matter the privacy concerns, since emergency situations can make it impossible for people to respond to messages.

The Trusted Contacts expansion follows Google’s new SOS alerts, a set of features for Search and Maps designed to make emergency information more accessible to all in the event of a crisis. Google might not be able to prevent disasters, but it’s taking steps to help those affected.