SAN FRANCISCO -- If the 1.5 million apps available to Android smartphone users are a rich feast, Android Auto's selection represents a strict diet, offering enough to keep drivers satisfied but sparing the sweet stuff that might cause them to overindulge.
Google's first in-car computer interface arrived in U.S. showrooms in May in the 2015 Hyundai Sonata, with nameplates from Chevrolet, Volkswagen, Audi and Kia close behind.
For now, just 35 apps are available. The limited roster shows how carefully Google is approaching its first foray into designing computer interfaces for cars.
Compared with apps for smartphones, the goals with dashboard apps are upside-down. Software developers usually try to make apps so "sticky" that people don't want to put down their phones and tablets, Greg Neiswander, research and testing lead for Android Auto, told a group of software developers on May 29 at Google I/O, the company's annual conference.
Cars are the opposite: The longer a user spends looking at the screen, the more dangerous an app becomes.
"Responsible design is a shared responsibility," Neiswander, who joined Google a year ago from Mercedes-Benz's r&d center in Palo Alto, California, told a crowd largely clad in sneakers and splayed on beanbag chairs. "The car is a space unlike any other that we work in, and we have to be really careful."
Google, worried about drivers being distracted by apps on the dashboard, has built templates into which all third-party apps must fit. Among the first apps to pass the test are the streaming audio players Audible, Pandora and Spotify, and the messaging services WhatsApp, WeChat and Telegram.
Early this year, Google held a contest to make sure its templates could keep out distracting apps, Andy Brenner, project manager for Android Auto, said in an interview. Google asked its engineers to pretend they were malicious developers trying to sneak something dangerous, like streaming video, onto the dashboard of a car.
The winner found a way to exploit the album-cover art feature from the audio template, and built a replica of the 1972 arcade game Pong that displayed on the dashboard screen. The driver controlled one paddle by pressing buttons mounted on the steering wheel of a car; the front passenger controlled the other paddle by tapping a pair of buttons on the touch screen.
"And that's why human beings review every app," Brenner said.