Google Voice: In the car with Android

Google Voice: In the car with Android

Summary: You can customize your smartphone in all sorts of fun and useful ways to provide an optimal in-vehicle experience and driving assistant.


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Welcome to the 2014 edition of the Ultimate Google Voice How-To Guide, presented by ZDNet's DIY-IT blog. In this article, and the baker's dozen that accompany it, you'll learn just about everything you need to know to get the most out of the Google Voice service. This guide contains a complete end-to-end update of our 2011 Google Voice guide, chock full of new ideas, completely new articles, and amazing tips.

You'll learn how to port your landline to Google Voice, how to set up phone handsets, how to integrate Google Voice into your iPhone and Android experience, how to set up a multi-line office, how to get the most out of using Google Voice and SMS, and even how to use Google Voice effectively and safely in your car, and lots more.

So brew up a cup of coffee or your favorite tea, grab a few snacks, and prepare to discover how plain 'ol phone calls are about to be transformed into something virtually indistinguishable from magic.

This article assumes you've already got a working Google Voice account and it's linked to your phone. If you don't, please read the earlier articles in this series. We are also aware of the rumors that Google may end-of-life Google Voice or migrate its functionality more fully into Hangouts and, if that happens, we'll update this series with all your best options.

This is by far my favorite article in this series. Sure, I use Google Voice for most of my daily communication, but getting to tinker with custom car communications tweaks is pretty much pure bliss for a car guy.

The neat thing is that you can customize your smartphone in all sorts of fun and useful ways to provide an optimal in-vehicle experience and driving assistant.

Oh, wait. You have an iPhone and not an Android phone? Oh, sorry. You can't customize that at all. Just skip along to the next article. Move along now. Nothing to see here.

Shh... are the iFolks gone? Let's wait a second until they leave the room. Watching them stand in a corner and cry just gets old after a while.

Okay, good. Now it's just us Android owners. Glad you hung in with me, because I've got a treat for you. We're going to spice up your phone experience and it's just gonna rock!

What can you do?

Let's be clear. We're talking about Android here, so you can do just about anything your little heart desires. I could write a fourteen article series just on how to use Tasker to customize your phone. But I don't want to give you a new hobby. I just want to help you get the most out of your phone in the car.

In this article, we're going to discuss the ways I use my phone in my car. There are clearly thousands of other approaches, but this should give you a good start and some inspiration.

None of what I've done involves rooting or jailbreaking the phone. I've bought a few apps that make things a little easier and provide some great features.

In specific, I've got a special home screen mode for use in the car, I can answer and make calls by voice, I can listen to incoming text messages and send a few canned replies using voice control, and I can listen to (but sadly not reply to) incoming chat messages from Google Hangouts.

A car-centric home screen

When I get into my car, I toss my phone into a car dock that holds my phone horizontally and at just about eye level. This means I don't have to take my eyes off the road to manage my phone's features.

The application I use and like is called Car Home Ultra. It's a $3.99 application (you download an unlocker from the Play Store) that gives you a customizable, large-button home screen. The app will automatically turn on and off when it encounters your vehicle's Bluetooth signal, and makes it easy to launch the specific car-related applications (like navigation) that you're likely to want to use.

It has a couple of features I really like. It will announce when you enter a new town, you can set it to warn you when you exceed a certain speed, and you can set a big button to dial a specific person. I have a button set up to dial my wife and another to dial the office. No fussing with voice control or anything else. One push and I'm golden.

The interface can also adjust automatically to day or night mode. It's a nice feature, but when you switch to another application, that application (say Pandora) doesn't adjust with it, which can be pretty blinding at night.

Voice dialing and voice answering

This is the one feature where everyone is going to be different. My car has a very nice voice dialing and answering feature built into the vehicle, with buttons right on the steering wheel. So I have my phone set up to work through the car's Bluetooth and use that feature.

Different phones have different voice capabilities as well. The Galaxy S4 has a voice control mode that allows you to set it to answer incoming calls.

And, of course, Google Now and Siri (for you Apple fans who stuck with us this far) will dial out based on voice commands as well.

In all these cases, if you've set up Google Voice to work properly with your phone's dialer (which you can't do on the Apple side), then when your voice control system initiates, it will dial out using Google Voice.

Voice texting and more

Let's start out with a simple warning: do not text and drive. I don't want to ever find out that one of you was typing a text on your little device and got hurt or hurt someone else. Your texts are just not that important.

Besides, with what I'm about to tell you, you'll never need to look at your phone or type a message while driving ever again. Like all Android apps, there are probably a hundred different SMS apps (including some really odd ones, like the creepy canned love-note SMS apps).

The one I've found that seems to do a pretty good job is SMS, my Car, and Me, which is also a $3.99 app. You can set this up to automatically launch when in the car as well, and when it's running, it will watch for incoming messages.

You can set it to watch for incoming SMS, Google Talk (i.e., Hangouts), Facebook Messenger, and even email (although it only works with a few odd email apps) and even Google Voice voicemail messages.

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For each of these, it behaves slightly differently. When you get an incoming SMS, the program will make an alert sound and then display an incredibly ugly cartoon guy. It will then speak out your message and give you the opportunity to reply with one of three pre-canned (you can edit them) responses that you choose verbally. Alternatively, you can verbally tell it to dial the number of the person who texted you.

With Google Hangouts messages, it will read the incoming message to you, but not give you the option to reply. If more than one message comes from the same person, it will simply say "2 messages" or "3 messages" and not speak the message.

With Google Voice voicemail messages, it will simply tell you that a call came in, and if it knows the Caller ID, will tell you. It will neither play nor speak the voicemail message.

Even with these limitations, it's a pretty slick tool and is just the beginning of the many fun ways you can customize your Android phone to be the ultimate car control center.

Next in our series: Google Voice: beyond Gmail. Get voicemail and texts using any email client you want

I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at

Topics: Google, Mobility, Telcos, Unified Comms, AT&T, Verizon, DIY


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Now do all this for free.

    I have a business and I refuse to carry around 2 phones so I still have a bit more manual stuff for my set-up to work, but, I do it all on a Samsung GT-P6800 with a 7.7 inch screen so I immediately have large buttons in most cases.
    The heart of my setup for SMS is Go SMS Pro and all it's wonderful setting to get BIG displays. I have it set to pop-up and display incoming messages in 20 pt text and automatically open the keyboard so I can get to the "MIC" button from both my personal number and my Google voice business number. Now I get a large display of the SMS text and a way to activate the voice reply and GO SMS PRO sends the reply using the same number the message came in on without me having to fumble around. Tap the "MIC", speak my reply, a quick proof read, tap to delete and start over or tap to send.
    To manage my SMS I use the stock App to start personal SMS conversations and the Google Voice App to start business SMS conversations and GO SMS PRO to continue them.
    Now add SMS READER. It will read the SMS messages out loud. It also announces callers and even inadvertently lets me know if the call came in on my personal number or my Google voice number. All Google voice calls (business) are announced as "Call from unknown number" since the Google voice calls are relayed via a random number to my personal number.
    Since I am using a 7.7 inch screen all the phone buttons are big to begin with so answering with a finger swipe, or rejecting with 2 taps is easy.
    If I find myself needing even more automation when I have made the mistake of getting into rush hour traffic, I turn on LazyCar which is set up to ONLY allow the really important calls to get through automatically to speakerphone and automatically send an "I'M driving" rejection to the rest.
    To make no hassle calls I have several options but the easiest is to put speed dials on my home screen. Google voice and GO SMS PRO put a "phone" button right on the top of the conversation screen. Unfortunately all of these require me to manually select whether to use my personal number or my Google Voice number to make the call and to complicate matters a bit more, the Google voice app ALWAYS displays this selection window in Portrait mode even though I have my device locked in Landscape. The Phone screen also defaults to Portrait if I answer until I tap the speakerphone button.
    Perhaps not as easy as the Authors way, but it is free and presbiopic friendly. Oh, did I mention it is FREE??
    • One Phone is easier with BlackBerry

      If you had BES10 and BlackBerry Secure Workspace on Android/iPhone or BlackBerry Balance on BES10.
  • Tech and driving: a lethal combination

    Yes, yes, I know that you can multitask flawlessly and use voice for everything and NEVER, EVER be a hazard to pedestrians and other drivers. But if you won't admit to ever having had a close call while fiddling with tech in your car, I'd wager you're bending the truth. You said that "I don't have to take my eyes off the road to manage my phone's features". Yeah. Sure. OK. Your phone has a visual display, doesn't it? That means eyes off the road. Period. Maybe for only a second or two or three, but, well, it's eyes off the road, and that's a distraction. Call me a luddite or old poop or over-cautious or whatever you like, but I don't want any kind of touchscreen, multi-function display on my car dash. Including phones.
    I seriously hope that you never have any problem while teching in your car, David. And I hope you never have to regret encouraging people to do it.
  • Please change this Dangerous perception

    I make myself a bit of a nuisance about this - but I see the ruined lives every day at work. There is a horribly mistaken universal perception that you can use your phone safely while driving - just because your car has a BT kit does not make it a good or safe idea anymore than driving 200 km/h because the speedometer goes that high.

    Do not use your phone in your car. There is no safe way to dial and talk that does not endanger yourself and everyone else around you. Just talking on the phone uses cognitive parts of your brain that you need to drive effectively and safely - it is not only about looking at the phone to make the call that is dangerous. Talking on the phone is even more dangerous than DUI. It's a proven fact. Texting while driving is just wrong and everyone should admit it and not do it.
  • I am with you on this one...

    it only takes one event to destroy your own or someone else's life for years to come, it's not worth it.
  • there's always a compromise

    We'd all be safer in cars that could go no faster that 20mph and were filled with foam... Obviously that's silly, but the point is we decide on a compromise between safety and convenience/speed. I'm comfortable with people talking hands free, listening to the radio, and maybe glancing down at the speedometer or at the gps/map from time to time. Others draw the line somewhere else. There are safer levels, and more hazardous levels.

    There is NO truly safe way to travel any significant distance. Regardless of mode or speed or era, people die when they travel. Its just the way it is and always has been.

    Be reasonable and realistic.