Polestar 2 Android Automotive OS infotainment system — a review(ish)
Android is versatile and has a very mature ecosystem of tools and developers. It’s no surprise that many car manufacturers are jumping on board bringing Android to their cars. I’ve been driving a Polestar 2 now for 6+ months experiencing a version of the new Android Automotive OS with Google Services and Play Store integrated right in the car’s dash. In this post I write some experiences about the system and actually living with it.
A lot of car reviews mention the infotainment system but as the reviewers usually have very limited time with the car the impressions are usually very superficial. Especially with the case of the Polestar system a first impression doesn’t really tell much. To get to experience the system properly you have to login to your own Google account, the same one you use on your other devices and make the car yours.
Note: it is possible to use the Polestar system without a Google account but many points I write about below do not apply when doing so. However, systems built without Google Services will likely have corresponding counterparts from another provider, the experience is likely to differ but might not be worse.
Note: it’s a global pandemic. We have not travelled long distances with the car very often. So my experience is mostly in city driving and day trips.
Android Auto vs. Android Automotive
Naming of these two very different but very similar looking systems is quite unfortunate. So before we dive into my Android Automotive OS (AAOS) review, let’s quickly make sure we’re all on the same page about what system I mean.
What is Android Auto?
Android Auto is a projected mode. It uses your phone as the computer but your car’s screen to render the output so it is easier to see. Android Auto can have 2-way communication with the car’s hardware and it can push and pull information. But once you disconnect your phone from the car system (wireless or wired) nothing works anymore. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are very similar technologies.
What is Android Automotive OS?
Android Automotive OS, on the other hand, is an embedded system running directly on your car’s hardware.
AAOS is a very similar variation of the normal Android as Android TV or WearOS. The manufacturers using the OS can customise it to their liking. If they want to use Google Play Store and other Google software the OS must pass the compatibility test and the company must enter into a commercial relationship with Google. If a manufacturer wants to use AAOS without the Google software they can take the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) and build nearly anything using it.
A well designed touch screen interface is better in cars than indirect controller systems, or especially systems trying to do both. Let me explain why.
But first, a disclaimer: I don’t have research to back my words. This is all anecdotal or elaboration of potential. I know there’s quite a bit of research done in this area but I think much of it is flawed for two reasons: the research is done using bad touch interfaces which are available in cars now, not modern and well designed alternatives. The vehicles used in most studies also do not have modern (read: functional) voice control available which I believe is one of the key features needed to make touch interfaces both comfortable and safe. But again: anecdotes and opinions coming up.
Only a purpose-built touch system can be good
Android is a versatile OS. It has support for D-pads (widely used in Android TV), sensor controls used in WearOS) and mouse and trackpad support has been there since the beginning (I remember connecting an Apple trackpad to a tablet running Android Honeycomb, 3, and that was magical). Despite all that, Android is a touch-first, and most of the time, touch-only system. I hope I can one day talk about my experience on trying to get reliable focus control working on an Android system but all I can really say is that indirect control methods and focus handling are very, very difficult to get right on Android. I’d say it is near impossible.
For a touchscreen system, a purpose built touch-first OS is the way to go. Android suits this role very well. Unlike many, most, of the current generation infotainment systems we see in cars now which were built to support multiple modes of use, Android Automotive OS is very much a touch-only system, at least in its current iteration. No compromises.
Direct access to all functions
Many, many of the last generation infotainment systems have become extremely bloated. Traditional car manufacturers seem to suffer from the same as old-school software houses: unable to let go of features that are not really needed. That’s why many of the touch screen systems of the last generation have gotten so much negative attention. Trying to add every possible feature one can think of into deep and cryptic menu hierarchies is bad software design. No matter what method you use, that kind of system is bad and become even worse when poorly adopted into touch use. You have to keep on re-reading the whole screen to understand what you need to tap to get to another screen and repeat. All the time is attention away from where is should be: the road.
The Polestar system isn’t like that. It feels like every screen and every function is carefully considered. Anything that is meant to be used while on the move has big, consistent tap targets. Everything else is arranged into shallow hierarchies and are easily accessible from the context you expect them to be.
The biggest reason why I think a well designed touch screen system is safer than a traditional system is that you use it much less when on the move. Changing navigation settings, drive mode or anything else can be done easily under 5 seconds. This means that even a short traffic light stop allows you to get your task done when stationary. No function is ever far away from your fingertips. You complete your task before you move again.
But the lack of feel of physical buttons
I think physical buttons have their purpose. Things you repeatedly change should stay physical. Changing music volume, turning cruise control / pilot assist on / off, answering phone calls are all still handled by physical buttons on the steering wheel. Play / pause as well as gear shifter are still on the center console on the Polestar 2. I find this to be a very powerful design. Everything dynamic is done with the touch screen and everything static and repeating with buttons.
Voice when moving
The Polestar 2 comes with Google Assistant, arguably the best, or at least top-tier voice assistant. All of the things you’d control from the touch screen can be done by voice. Skipping songs, muting navigation, changing navigation settings (avoid motorways etc), changing AC temperature and setting a new navigation target or a middle stop are all things I find myself using the voice control when I’m not stationary.
Google Assistant is far from perfect but it is head above anything the traditional car manufacturers have given us before. There’s just no way that a non-software company could match what Google, Apple and Amazon can do in this area. These are the voice assistants that will turn car voice control into comfort.
Touch screens are here to stay and that’s a good thing
I’d argue that people who are most against touch screens haven’t tried a good touch screen system. The faults we see are not the touch screen technology itself but the software running on them. This situation will correct itself when more and more car companies adopt systems designed for touch. We will also learn which parts we should keep in physical buttons and which parts we should control from the touch screen.
Future of car infotainment is a tablet on the dash. And it is good!
I live in the Google ecosystem. I’ve long ago given up the idea that I can protect my privacy from Google and instead lean into it and try to get benefits from the company knowing me. I have a Google Home device in every room of our apartment, we have Nest security cameras. I use Google Chrome, Google Maps, GMail and Android. And now, Google is in my car. Integrated.
The big win on being part of the Google ecosystem is that Polestar 2 knows everything Google does. This makes information transfer seamlessly to and from the car. Google Maps knows what I was looking at on my laptop and Google Books knows which audiobook I was listening to on my Google Home or on my phone. Maps, books, podcasts all continue seamlessly, without any manual sync or send actions in the car. I wrote about his and importance of this kind of continuum some time ago.
I think this continuum is the biggest omission that infotainment reviews do when they talk about Google systems. This is the superpower of the system for people who are willing to share their privacy with Google.
Naturally, all of the above is optional. You do not need to login at Google at all, or you can create another account to be used just in the car. This way your privacy is safe but you also miss on the features. I’m not blaming anyone going down that route. The concerns are understandable.
Play Store and 3rd party apps
On Polestar 2, Google Play Store is where you get your 3rd party apps. In the non-Google systems there will be other stores from other providers. But for now, let’s take a look at what the state is with Google Play at time of writing this (Aug, 2021).
Google is taking no chances when it comes to safety and the software loaded from Google Play. They are following the same approach on AAOS as they did on Android Auto, the projected mode and only allow templated apps to the store. At the time of writing this AAOS Play Store only allows media apps from 3rd parties. All of these must use the template defined by Google effectively only providing the media source for the in-car media app. The apps can implement only one custom screen, the login screen and that can’t be used when driving.
Android Auto already has messaging, navigation and charging apps available in the Play Store and seems like Google is soon going to be opening the same for AAOS Play Store. This should increase the amount of available useful apps quite a bit. I hope they’re not waiting too long to make it happen.
Manufacturers can bypass Google’s rules
The limitations Google have put in are all about safety. Obviously, Google doesn’t want to get sued for accidents caused by people playing games while driving or otherwise getting distracted by an app loaded from the Play Store. But it looks like Google has given the power to car manufacturers themselves to not to follow rules enforced elsewhere. Polestar has re-published a few apps under their developer account which are installable in the car. These are full Android apps and not templated ones.
I do not know if this is a temporary situation and if Google is working on developers being able to certify their apps for cars at a later point or if this is the way custom 3rd party apps will get into cars in the future as well. In any case, if you’re an app developer and you want your non-media app into the cars that are in the market eight now, you need to talk to the manufacturers directly.
Is Android Automotive OS ready / stable?
Google likes to experiment in the public. Google releases tend to stay in public beta for ages. In the case of Android Automotive OS the situation seems to be slightly different. Google has been working with their launch partners for quite some time to get it released in stable form.
Polestar 2 was the first car with AAOS. It launched with Android version 9. Or in fact, kind of Android 9+ as the AAOS version contained some OS tweaks that were included in Android 10 in the other OS versions. Soon after launch the car system was updated (OTA) to Android 10 which is the current version at the time of writing this. It is safe to assume that most cars will be launching with Android versions that are 1–2 version numbers behind the latest stable release as car development and testing processes are very slow and require much more thorough verification processes.
By my experience the Polestar system is much more stable and mature than any other Google first generation system I’ve ever seen. Google, and the manufacturers, are taking this stuff seriously. However, it is still Android and Android always comes with some quirks. I’ve had one system freeze and two occasions where the connectivity seems to have been lost. These happened with an older software version but I have no reason to think they would not happen again from time to time.
So if you have a car with AAOS, you probably need to know how to reset certain parts of it. On the Polestar 2, you can restart the whole infotainment system by holding down the home button for a long time. This can easily be done while driving as well. It simply turns off and on again the Android part of the in-car software. Naturally, Android doesn’t control anything critical in the car. The only impact doing this has is AC turning off while the system is rebooting.
Polestar has also prepared for the eventuality of connectivity failing. Holding down the defrost button restarts the system connectivity. It’s a good option to have while only needed very rarely.
Car manufacturers have very free hands to customise the AAOS to their liking. While there is such a thing as “stock Android” in AAOS as well, nobody seems to be using it and it feels unlikely that any of the major automotive manufacturers would do so in the future either. The default experience is likely only meant to be something developers can use not to have parts of a functional system missing if they pull the emulator images from Google directly.
Polestar have fully built their own and replaced the home screen (launcher), car settings and climate controls as well as customised the media player. They have also fully built their own system UI which dictates how multitasking is done in the system.
The system UI
Polestar have completely changed the way the operating system works on the top level. The system UI (=parts of the user interface not produced by apps) consists on top bar with 4 buttons you can press to access reverse camera, car settings, all apps, and user profile. These are toggle buttons which can be pressed to access these screens and then pressed again to return where you were before.
I don’t think approach is very good. I struggle to return to the previous app after few interactions. I also don’t think you really need access to the profile all the time. Media controls would have been much more useful button to have access to all the time. The polestar system drives you to use the home screen as the central hub of interaction when using multiple apps. Unfortunately, it isn’t very good either.
I’m not a fan of the Polestar home screen. I understand the idea and I kind of get it. But it just doesn’t work very well in practice.
The screen is divided into 4 buckets / squares / folders. As a user, you can arrange all of your apps into these 4 buckets. The last used app or the one arranged first if no app was used from the bucket is the one that is shown on the home screen.
As the content of the buckets changes, this system fails to be a very convenient for switching between apps. You’re constantly forced to use the all apps screen, which doesn’t feel like it was meant to be used for it.
Naturally, the car settings app is fully custom and fully Polestar. The app is clearly designed, easy to use and pleasant to look at. This is just good.
The Polestar media player is lightly themed AAOS media player. This is the engine that drives all media playback in the car. When you install other media apps from the Play Store what you’re actually doing is just providing different sources for the car’s media player to play media from.
I think this approach is fantastic. It means that all media playback looks and functions the same. As this might be something you use on the move, muscle memory is important. Categories and content changes but the functionality stays.
Google Assistant, voice control
Even with all of its flaws, Google Assistant is still one of the top voice systems out there. In the car environment it is excellent. This is the first time ever I’ve been able to rely on voice commands working.
I do use Google Assistant on my phone, on my TV and in every room of our home. So I know the limitations of the system and I’ve learned to live with the flaws.
In car, the Assistant works offline as well. Without an internet connection it won’t be able to answer questions but it will still control the in-car systems.
For people not comfortable with Google knowing everything about you, the system provides a wide range of configuration to limit how personalised service the Assistant gives you.
The Infotainment system seamlessly extends to the Polestar instrument cluster in front of the driver. The area in the middle of the instrument cluster display is rendered by the infotainment system.
Google AAOS and EV life
Driving an EV for longer distances requires a bit more careful planning, at least until the fast-charging infrastructure catches up with the demand. Commuting, day trips etc. are really not an issue and need very little support from software. So let’s focus on the long-trip use case.
Google Maps navigation understands your car and your current battery status. I really appreciate the navigation showing me remaining charge when searching for destinations.
The system also recognises when you input a destination you won’t reach with the current charge. It will automatically suggest suitable stopping places for charging.
While nice, this feature is really not useful in its current state. It doesn’t let the user select preferred charging providers, for example. At the moment the charging infrastructure is fragmented and pricing can vary greatly between chargers.
I wish Google would let me set up my preferences manually to help it find better search results for me. For now, I find myself using 3rd party apps to solve this issue.
A Better Route Planner (ABRP)
ABRP is an example of an app with fantastic data and a completely horrible user interface.
Despite the UI, this is the app I use for longer trips. Polestar has added it to the Google Play Store in the car and after planning your route on your phone, it is easy to lookup the same plan in the car UI and send the next charging location to the car navigation system.
TL;DR — Conclusion
This infotainment system is a generational leap forwards from any other system out there. Usability, continuum, information structure, user experience, all are level above the competition. This is a system that you can easily get into and becomes more and more useful longer you use it. It is a good system at the day one and a fantastic system at the day one hundred.
Now, it’s not perfect. There’s a lot of thing that can be improved. But this is now the new baseline where we’re starting from. If we remember that the Polestar system was the very first AAOS system in the market we understand how much improvements can be build on top of the new platform. This is just the beginning of the divergent innovation different companies can now start to work on. The future of infotainment systems is no longer in hands of just a select few large manufacturers. We will start seeing fantastic systems build on top of the AAOS by very small, but driven, teams who can take risks and think outside the box unlike their large competitors.
This is just the beginning. Future is fantastically exciting for in-car infotainment!