Turn An Android Phone Into An Infotainment System

01
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No infotainment system? Grab an old Android phone, and you're good to go.

the items you'll need for this project
In order to turn your phone into a miniature car computer, you'll need to assemble a few items. Photo © Jeremy Laukkonen

If you have an old Android phone laying around, it's surprisingly easy to turn the device into a serviceable infotainment system. The end result won't exactly match the kind of functionality you get out of a fancy new OEM infotainment system, but you can make a pretty good stab at it without spending a lot of money.

The main features that you'll be able to add with this project include access to vital data from your vehicle's onboard computer and the ability to play music, video, and other content via your vehicle's sound system, and turn-by-turn navigation, just like a real infotainment system.

In order to complete this project, you will need:

  1. An old Android phone you aren't using anymore.
  2. A Bluetooth or WiFi ELM 327 scan tool device.
  3. An FM modulator or transmitter, or a head unit that has an aux input.
  4. Some type of mount to hold your phone in place
  5. An OBD-II interface app
  6. Navigation and entertainment apps

Your results will vary depending on the type of Android phone you use, but this project was completed with an old G1. The G1, also known as the HTC Dream, is literally the oldest Android phone in existence, so just about any handset you have laying around should work. The phone in this tutorial is running custom firmware, however, so a G1 that has an outdated version of Android may not be able to run some of the latest diagnostic and entertainment software.

02
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Locate the OBD-II connector in your vehicle.

an OBD-II connector
Most OBD-II connectors are right out in the open, but you'll occasionally have to search a little. Photo © Jeremy Laukkonen

Unlike old OBD-I connectors, most OBD-II connectors are very easy to locate. The specifications state that the connector has to be within two feet of the steering wheel, so most of them are located in that vicinity.

The first place to look is under the dash to the left or right of the steering column. You may find the connector right up front, or it may be mounted back near the firewall.

If you have trouble locating your OBD-II connector right out in the open, you'll want to be on the lookout for removable panels. Some connectors are hidden behind removable panels under the dash or even in the center console. Your user’s manual will often show you where to look, or you can look for a picture on the Internet.

Some OBD-II connectors look a little different than others, but they all use the same pin-out. If you find a connector that is about the right size and shape, even if it looks a little different from the connector pictured here, it's probably what you're looking for.

If you gently insert your OBD-II wireless scan tool device, and it goes in, then you're on the right track. If it doesn't go in easily, however, you probably haven't actually located the OBD-II connector. The fit should be smooth and easy, and you should never have to force it. In some cases, the connector will come with a protective cover installed that you will have to remove first.

03
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Plug in the OBD-II interface.

bluetooth OBD-II interface
You can't plug the interface in upside down, but you might bend the pins if you try. Photo © Jeremy Laukkonen

OBD-II connectors are designed so that you can’t plug anything into them upside down. You can still bend the pins in your interface by forcing it, though, so make sure that you have it oriented properly before you push it into place.

If your OBD-II connector is located in an awkward place, you may need to buy a low profile interface device. Many connectors are located near the driver’s knees or legs, so an interface device that’s too long may get in the way.

In cases where you feel that you may kick the device when getting in and out of the car, it is especially important to go with a low profile device rather than accidentally damaging your OBD-II connector.

04
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Install the Android interface software.

G1 running Torque
There are a lot of free apps available, but you might want to start with the free version of Torque to make sure your Bluetooth interface works. Photo © Jeremy Laukkonen

Once you're all plugged in with your wireless OBD-II scan tool device, the first step toward really turning your Android phone into an infotainment system is finding the right apps, and the first one you'll need is an interface app.

There are a number of OBD-II interface apps available, so you should be able to find one that will work with your specific hardware and version of Android. Some are free, while others are quite expensive, and some paid apps also have free trial versions so you can get your feet wet before you spend anything. Torque is a popular option that offers a free “lite” version that’s useful for just testing your system.

You may also want to try out a free version first to make sure that the app will run on your phone and connect to your ELM 327 device. Even if the Google Play store says that an app will run on your phone, you may find that it refuses to pair with your scan tool.

05
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Pair your Android and ELM 327 scanner.

android wireless settings
Access the wireless settings to pair your handset with your Bluetooth OBD-II interface. Photo © Jeremy Laukkonen

If you’re using a Bluetooth interface device, you’ll have to pair it with your phone. Pairing sometimes fails, which typically indicates an issue with the interface device. In that case, you may have to obtain a new unit.

Once your Android is paired to your scanner, you'll be able to access all sorts of important information from your vehicle's onboard computer. It isn't exactly the same as the types of monitors often included in infotainment systems, but it's a close approximation that you can get working on virtually any vehicle built after 1996.

06
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Set up your FM transmitter or auxiliary cable.

An FM transmitter plugged into an Android phone
If your head unit doesn't have any audio inputs, an FM transmitter will typically get the job done. Photo © Jeremy Laukkonen

Once you have the information part down, it's time to move on to the entertainment.

If your head unit has an auxiliary input, then you can use your Android phone to play music through that interface. However, it’s also possible to do the same thing with an inexpensive FM transmitter or an FM modulator. You can also use a USB connection if your head unit has one.

The sound quality can vary from mediocre to great, depending on the connection method you use, but either way, you’ll have access to your music library or Internet radio apps.

In this case, we have hooked up the G1 to an FM transmitter and tuned the radio to an unused part of the broadcast spectrum. This allows the phone to transmit music, or anything else, over the vehicle's speakers.

Many Bluetooth car kits achieve this same basic type of functionality, and you may be able to use your Android phone for hands-free calling if it still has an active voice plan.

07
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Install other infotainment apps.

G1 Infotainment Device
The interface is a little small, but this easy DIY project yields a pretty serviceable infotainment center. Photo © Jeremy Laukkonen

After you're up and running with your OBD-II interface app and have your old Android phone connected to your car audio system via an aux input, FM transmitter, or other means, you're good to go. You'll already have the basics of a do it yourself Android infotainment system going on, but there's no reason to stop there.

If you have an active data connection on your phone, or a mobile hostpot, you can turn it into a true infotainment system that can monitor your vehicle through the OBD-II interface, play music, provide GPS navigation with turn by turn directions, and virtually endless other functionality through other apps.