Oct 24, 2023
Polestar Android Automotive OS Infotainment Review: A Step in the Right Direction
Polestar has outsourced infotainment duties to the software experts of Mountain View. It’s a great idea and a good start but still falls short of the existing phone-mirroring technologies. cltsuii
Polestar has outsourced infotainment duties to the software experts of Mountain View. It’s a great idea and a good start but still falls short of the existing phone-mirroring technologies.
Most in-car infotainment systems that are actually made by the automakers themselves suck. Built-in navigation systems feel about a decade behind Google Maps while media-playing interfaces often look derivative of the Creative Zen MP3 player you had as a teenager because your parents didn’t love you enough to get you an iPod. If they knew what was good for them, carmakers would outsource this stuff to the actual software experts of Silicon Valley.
With the Polestar 2’s world-first Android Automotive OS implementation, that’s exactly what the Swedish EV maker has done. As the name suggests, it’s a car-optimized version of Google’s Android—that is, the operating system used by most smartphones that aren’t iPhones—and offers smartphone-style Android apps to take care of navigation, media, and messaging on top of the usual car-specific functions such as climate, parking cameras, and drive modes.
In addition to future Polestar models, variations of Android Automotive OS are available in select General Motors SUVs—including the new GMC Hummer and Cadillac Lyriq EVs—as well as the upcoming Honda Accord.
In the case of the Polestar 2 used for this test, the system is projected from an 11.15-inch touchscreen accompanied by a 12.3-inch instrument screen. The former is vertically oriented, further lending to its big smartphone-in-a-car vibe. Both displays are quite sharp and high quality.
There’s even a touch-sensitive Android-style home button at the bottom along with a physical volume knob housing a play/pause button that, a lot like the rest of this car, feels very much ripped out of Volvo’s parts bin—which is no bad thing. Located fore of the shifter, the volume knob moves with nice, weighty detents and features a diamond-like texture that makes it feel like an ornate, quality item.
Buttons on the steering wheel also let you control the volume as well as skip tracks or channels, prompt voice commands, and control the info displayed on the gauge display. As a physical space, it’s simple and fairly minimalist but not overly so. A wireless phone charger located underneath the touchscreen works as advertised.
This system’s raison d’etre is, of course, the integrated Android apps. Instead of requiring you to hook up a smartphone every time you’d like to use actual smartphone apps (although you can still do that if you’d really like—more on that later), the Polestar is able to run many of these built-in. Two of the most crucial apps are, I suspect, Google Maps and Spotify and they are indeed both on board here.
Built-in Google Maps feels a bit more full-featured than the ultra-simplified Apple CarPlay rendition in that it’s willing to throw more info up on the screen. It’s closer to the full phone version of Maps—as in, the version you get on your phone sans CarPlay or Android Auto—which is appreciated. What’s more, the entire map can be relayed to the gauge screen.
Built-in Spotify, likely because it is not an in-house Google joint, isn’t quite as well-conceived. It mostly works as advertised, able to play tunes and podcasts of your own choosing and serving up a facsimile of the mobile app users already know, albeit with Polestar’s orange UI. But, for some reason, there was no repeat song toggle at the time of testing. So if you happen to stumble upon an amazing new song that you’d like to spam yourself with for the rest of the drive until it’s no longer amazing (no judgment, we’ve all been there), you’re pretty much stuck having to hit the previous track button every time.
(On a related note, Polestar’s radio player does not appear to be able to rewind satellite radio, not that I could figure out anyway.)
There are, of course, a whole Google Play store’s worth of apps available to download. You can use Google Play Books to listen to audiobooks. If you happen to be one of the 23 audiophiles subscribed to Tidal, you can download that to your Polestar as well. Ditto for YouTube Music. The PlugShare app is helpful when you’re on the road and in need of a charging station. However, given that this is a Google system, Apple Music is not on the menu.
In short, Android Automotive OS does its darndest to replicate the smartphone experience without having to connect or even have a smartphone on your person.
Audio and navigation aren’t the only things an infotainment system has to handle, though. A lot like systems from Mercedes, BMW, and, of course, Volvo, climate controls are done via the bottom of the touchscreen. Climate-related buttons are nice and big while more detailed settings can be brought up by tapping the fan icon.
The entire system overall is fast, with touches of the screen resulting in reactions that are snappy and smooth-feeling.
One annoying gripe: the things Polestar has decided to assign to the big shortcuts that live at the top of the screen are questionable. You’ve got parking cameras, car-related settings, the app drawer, and an “O” that takes you to the screen that lets you switch user profiles. That last one sort of makes sense, sure, but, as far as I’m concerned, those other three are some of the functions I use the least. Nav and media should take up at least two of these, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to customize ‘em.
Another thing to point out that may or may not have been down to the cellular connectivity issues known to plague the Polestar 2: built-in Google Maps randomly stopped being able to pinpoint my location around the middle of my week with this car and did not recover the ability to do so, rendering the function practically useless. Coincidentally or not, the Sirius XM satellite radio subscription associated with this car appeared to expire around the same time, almost as if the car had put itself into some sort of selective airplane mode.
When it did work, though, the system itself is decently conceived mostly because of its simplicity and clean, uncluttered layouts.
Despite the Polestar 2’s status as a tech-forward EV, Apple CarPlay integration is surprisingly wired. Although perhaps this isn’t so surprising considering the phone-eliminating ethos of its Android Automotive OS. In any case, once you’ve got your iPhone hooked up via USB-C, CarPlay works well and takes up most of the screen in a vertical orientation. CarPlay, by the way, dynamically places your three most recent (i.e. most used) apps at the bottom, thus fixing my biggest gripe with Polestar’s native Android system.
For that reason alone, I’d still probably use CarPlay the majority of the time if I actually owned this car. Doubly so if the connection were wireless, which it, unfortunately, is not.
With Android Automotive OS, Polestar is going in the right direction by handing infotainment software development over to the experts at Google. It’s a whole lot better conceived than the vast majority of native car head units out there. The biggest caveat here, though, is that both Google itself and Apple have their own in-car phone-mirroring tech already, and as good as Polestar’s relatively new Android system is, it’s still not as well thought out or faultless as CarPlay, which has had almost nine years of iterations and refinements.
That said, there absolutely are things to appreciate here, namely the ability to have Google Maps projected natively in the gauge cluster, and the Polestar-specific settings pages that let you alter vehicle settings are pleasing to look at and simple to navigate.
But in its as-tested state, the whole thing feels a bit unfinished. Give it another few years to iron out the kinks and bugs, though, and we might just be looking at the future of in-car software.
Got a tip or question for the author about Android Automotive OS? You can reach them here: [email protected]Polestar Android Automotive OS Review SpecsCar:Infotainment screen size:Instrument screen size:Volume knob:Apple CarPlay/Android Auto:Quick take: HardwareSoftwareApple CarPlayVerdict