Tech Review: Volvo’s Google Assistant User Interface is Here to Help

Developing an intuitive infotainment system is almost as important as building a car that drives well in today’s tech-centric environment. A new user interface can be a make-or-break proposition for an automaker and its products, not to mention a safety concern—if, say, a touchscreen is super distracting, drivers might spend more time than necessary looking away from the road to use it.

Volvo is in the midst of one such transition to a new in-car tech user experience. The Swedish automaker has begun swapping over to a new Google-powered infotainment system, which is displayed on a vertical 9.0-inch touchscreen. At first glance it looks very similar to the outgoing setup utilized across Volvo’s current lineup, however, there are some key changes that we had the chance to explore during our recent first drive of the 2022 XC60 and V90 Cross Country. Although the new Google system has its perks thanks to its responsive voice recognition technology, we also noted some significant shortcomings that ultimately hold back this important update.

What’s New

Volvo made the smart choice in keeping the four-app layout of its outgoing infotainment user interface. Although its latest software is powered by Google’s services, it retains the familiar look and feel of having the four most frequently used menu items up front, arranged like apps on a phone screen: maps, Bluetooth or music, mobile phone, and (now) Google Assistant.

However, instead of the convoluted app interface Volvo previously used, there is now a series of apps with icons that should be familiar to anyone that’s used a product that runs Android (or even for those who have used Google’s apps online). These applications are the substitutions for the four big home screen tiles. What’s more, Volvo drivers can add even more apps to their car via the Google Play store. Just like an Android phone, logging into one’s account in the car synchronizes settings and apps.

The addition of Google Assistant is the most significant addition to the new UX. Occupants of a Volvo can say “Hey Google” followed by a voice command to manipulate a number of settings or preferences within the vehicle. This includes changing the HVAC system’s temperature, activating the heated or ventilated seats, or turning the steering wheel warmer on. Just like the Siri assistant takes navigation requests with Apple CarPlay, Google Assistant can input a destination and offer route guidance via Google Maps. It also integrates with Google Home, with the car getting wrapped into the owner’s network of other connected products; you can tell your Volvo to turn on the lights at home and Google will make that happen.

The speech recognition is programmed to be interpretive too; it can pick up more casual language and colloquialisms and react to them. Asking Google to “turn up the heat” works just as well as “increase the temperature by two degrees.”

Despite these advancements, Google Assistant is still limited in a few areas. For example, it doesn’t respond well to politeness: The system balks at commands including “please.” Additionally, in the V90 Cross Country Inscription we tested, we weren’t able to turn on the massaging seats with a voice command, as you can in newer Mercedes models (which aren’t running Google). In all, the infotainment system is very robust and offers the expected functionality of Android Auto in a Volvo-native package, albeit with a few missteps.

What Could Be Improved

The advantage of in-car Google Assistant is that drivers can keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel most of the time. However, Google relies on cloud computing for nearly every element of its system. When the cell service is gone, or when the SIM card isn’t able to connect, voice commands don’t work.

We experienced this firsthand on a drive through the Malibu canyons in a 2022 V90 Cross Country, where cell reception is scant. An attempted command of “Hey Google, turn on my heated seats” was met with a message indicating that there was insufficient reception and that Google Assistant wasn’t able to do what we asked. Voice recognition is fantastic when the service is good, but the system’s inability to perform key functions without cell service is a notable disadvantage to other comparable infotainment systems on the market. The same goes for Spotify, which comes preinstalled. From what we experienced, its ability to cache recently streamed music is limited, forcing us to resort to playing music the old fashioned way: via Bluetooth straight from our phone.

Once we swapped out of the V90 Cross Country and into a 2022 XC60 R-Design, we experienced a major failure of both the infotainment unit and the in-car SIM card. Data couldn’t connect, so most of the app services were rendered unusable. Fortunately, Google Maps had our route cached so we still had directions from lunch back to the next meeting spot. Our woes were compounded by a loss of the ability to play music over Bluetooth. Relegated to FM radio and subjected to a ton of ads, the first drive of the XC60 was ultimately dulled somewhat.

SiriusXM typically fulfills the need for music when streaming isn’t available, but Volvo doesn’t include it with the new infotainment unit, a major bummer for satellite radio users. This further highlights the tradeoff Volvo made to have Google take over its vehicles; the onboard app store adds some more flexibility but buyers will have to conform to the car’s native infotainment.

Furthermore, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay aren’t yet available on the new system, which has already shipped with vehicles that are on sale right now. A lot of the functionality of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay phone pairing protocols is baked into Volvo’s infotainment, especially because logging into one’s Google account brings over all of the user’s information. Android users will have most of the content from their phones available more readily than iPhone users, so Apple diehards beware.

Volvo offered us some indication that these shortcomings are temporary; its new infotainment unit has over-the-air update capability, meaning that consumers’ vehicles can get new software without ever having to go to a dealership. However, when asked when crucial features like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay will arrive, our question was met with a vague “soon”. The Volvo faithful will have to trust that full phone projection is on the way. Until then, Google’s operating system will have to stand in as a one-size-fits-all solution for Volvo’s in-car technology.

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