In a vacuum, Android Auto isn't a great product. So, it speaks volumes about the sad state of automotive infotainment systems that Android Auto has spread to 100 million cars. Google just announced that number, along with a number of other improvements that will make your phone feel more central to the driving experience. In the next version of Android, your phone might even be able to start your car, but only if you've got the right combination of mobile device and automobile.
Currently, connecting your phone to a supported vehicle gives you the Android Auto software experience, and that's it. As part of Android 12, Google says it's working with carmakers like BMW to make your phone into a virtual car key, allowing you to start and unlock the car with a tap. You can even share access to your car with friends and family, provided they too have a compatible device. It's coming to Pixels and Samsung phones first this fall. A similar feature arrived on iOS last year, but it's limited to BMW vehicles right now.
Support for digital car keys will vary by device and vehicle, of course, but some combinations will use ultra-wideband technology to authenticate so you don't even have to take the phone out of your pocket. That'll be handy for the expanding list of cars from Honda, Ford, and GM that have wireless Android Auto. For others, you'll be able to use NFC to authenticate your phone as a key.
The Android Auto setup process could get smoother, too. Improvements to Fast Pair mean you'll be able to link with certain cars instantly. This has the potential to replace numerous time-consuming taps in unintuitive infotainment systems, so I'm all for it. However, (shockingly) not all cars will support it. Google calls out BMW and Ford as working on Fast Pair support. It would be nice if all Android Auto vehicles had a consistent feature set, but I suppose we're lucky the automotive industry is going along at all.