Google doesn’t like me. That’s the only assumption I can make when it consistently finds ways to make my life more difficult. Google+, Inbox, Pixelbook, these are dead Google products that I love, but at least I could find alternatives for them easily enough. The same can’t be said for driving apps. Google has messed with its driving apps for the worse twice now, and it looks like it’s about to happen again.
What came before
Google’s first solution to create a driving interface for phones was perfect. To this day, I keep a photo of Android Auto for phones in my wallet that I look at whenever I want to remember happier, simpler times. The app did exactly what the name suggests; it put the UI from an Android Auto head unit on your phone. I drive a car made in 2011, with no plans to replace it, and putting my phone into my dash mount and having all the benefits of Android Auto was perfect. Google killed the app off along with Android 12 back in 2021, and things only worsened from then on.
Next, we had Assistant Driving Mode. It wasn’t quite as flexible as Auto for phone screens, but it had all the functionality I needed. The new home screen showed all the relevant shortcuts, be it for starting a call, message, or media. And below them were app shortcuts for Google Maps and any music or podcast app you installed.
Just a year after Assistant Driving Mode replaced Auto for phone screens, Google decided to ruin it for me. I drive almost exclusively around my town, and I know these roads like the back of my hand. As such, I only use navigation when I’m leaving town. My primary usage for these driving apps was media control. Auto for phone screens and Assistant Driving Mode were perfect for this, keeping the display lit and providing a UI with big buttons that were easy to use while driving.
In 2022, Google decided to kill the home screen, making it so that Driving Mode would only ever show if you had Maps navigating somewhere. Every time I get in my car, I have to set some random destination and disable the navigation voice to pull up the media player I want. This alone is almost enough to make me leave YouTube Music and return to Spotify, which has its own car mode. I thought this was as bad as it would get, but this is Google, and as I said before, Google doesn’t like me.
Driving Mode could go away for good
In December 2023, it was revealed that Google could remove the current Driving Mode version entirely. One of the strings inside the app, as discovered by 9to5Google, says Maps Driving mode is “going away in February.” We haven’t had any official word from Google yet, but this string was found in the app, and given the checkered history, would it be surprising if Google killed this off entirely?
If and when that happens, all that will be left is the basic UI pictured above, which can be accessed by saying, “OK, Google, launch driving mode.” There are no media controls to speak of, just navigation. Maybe Google will announce something new before then, but I doubt it.
So, what’s left for me to do? I don’t plan on getting a new car soon; I like this one, and retrofitting an Android Auto unit into the car is an expensive process. There are a lot of portable Android Auto screens available now. These screens would sit in my dash mount instead of my phone and act as an external Android Auto head unit. That’s probably the route I’ll take at this point, but I’d really like to have the old app back.