There are some things, like texting, that you should never do while driving. Still, Google’s Android phone operating system has clearly been designed with drivers in mind. Both the Verizon Droid and Google Nexus One sport mapping applications that offer turn-by-turn directions with spoken street names, the best real-time traffic on the planet, and full integration with Google Street View. Android also features a “Car Home” application that provides easy access to Voice Search, Navigation, Google Maps, and Contacts–with big buttons that are seemingly intended to be pressed while driving.
Motorola and Google are also selling gadgets that hold a phone to a car’s dashboard and charge it at the same time. The Motorola’s car mount is $39.99; Google’s Nexus One Car Dock is $55 and includes a built-in speakerphone connected via Bluetooth.
I purchased a Nexus One Car Dock last month and have been using it pretty consistently. The dock is clearly the result of thoughtful engineering. The twist-action suction cup has a much better grip than the lever-action cup that comes with most car mounts. The Bluetooth base automatically pairs with the phone when you insert it into the dock and, assuming you’ve plugged the base into your cigarette lighter, the phone immediately starts charging.
Unfortunately, in my noisy sports car, the dock’s speakerphone is not as good as the speakerphone built into the phone itself–and neither could compete with the earphone and lapel microphone that came with the Nexus One. Because the dock’s bezel obscures the phone’s volume, the dock has its own volume rocker. It’s located on the other side of the phone from the standard controls, on the driver’s far side (assuming the driver’s seat is on the left and the phone is in the middle of the dashboard), making the control hard to find.
There is clearly a need for smart-phone applications that can be used in the car. Ideally these applications would be voice-controlled, eliminating the need to take one’s eyes off the road or hands off the steering wheel. For the few times that the driver needed to glance at the screen, the apps would feature big icons and easy-to-read text. And the phone would automatically change its display depending on whether it was day or night.
Google has some of this technology working today. The Navigation application’s turn-by-turn directions are astonishingly easy to use. Before I got my dock, I would typically use the program on the voice alone, putting the phone in my pocket with the screen turned off to conserve the battery. And Google’s voice search is pretty accurate, especially when searching for people who have several syllables in their names.
Unfortunately, neither of these applications is really designed to be completely hands-free or reading-free. To search for a person you need to touch the “voice search” button, say their name, and then select from several choices on the screen. And other than the Car Home application, the Android applications are insensitive to the fact that they are running in the Dock.