Amazon Makes Alexa Your Co-Pilot

Drivers will increasingly be able to operate their cars and access functions and information by simply speaking.


By Murray Slovick, Contributing Editor

Amazon’s voice-enabled personal assistant Alexa is no longer confined to the home. BMW, Ford, Hyundai, and Volkswagen are among the automakers who have integrated (or plan to integrate) voice-controlled artificial-intelligence assistants into their vehicles.

Recently, amidst numerous Alexa introductions—the company announced more than a dozen new voice-powered, hands-free products, including a Smart Plug to control coffee makers and an Alexa-enabled microwave with an Auto Popcorn Replenishment feature that lets you order popcorn directly from the device—Amazon launched Echo Auto, a miniature smart speaker that mounts on your dashboard. It works like any other Alexa device, which means you can ask Alexa where the nearest Starbucks is, hear the morning news, listen to an Audible book on your commute, or manage your calendar, all while your eyes stay on the road.


Amazon’s Echo Auto sits atop the dashboard and connects to your mobile phone via Bluetooth. (Source: Amazon)

With an eight-microphone array designed for in-car acoustics and speech-recognition technology, Echo Auto makes it possible for Alexa to hear you over music, A/C, and road noise. The device is powered by your car’s 12-V power outlet or USB port, and connects to your stereo system through a 3.5-mm audio jack or Bluetooth LE connection. It connects to Alexa through the Alexa app on your smartphone; your phone supplies the data connection that Amazon needs to communicate with the cloud.

Ask for directions and Alexa connects to supported apps like Google Maps, Apple Maps, or Waze on your phone.

Smart assistants work by using a very small speech-recognition engine based on a small, low-power auxiliary processor (the Apple iPhone calls its version the Always On Processor) with access to the microphone signal—it runs all the time and listens for key words. The audio input that follows in each digital assistant then needs to be transmitted to the cloud for processing, usually via Wi-Fi.

Initially Echo Auto will be available “by invitation only,” according to Amazon, later this year. The invitation price is $24.99; its regular price will be $49.99.

The Push from Auto Manufacturers

Apart from efforts by Amazon, Apple and Microsoft to bring smart voice-control assistants to the car, automakers themselves are leaping over one another to get into the segment. They claim their proprietary systems and Alexa- or Siri-based smart assistants are complementary technologies.

For example, earlier this month BMW introduced its own Intelligent Personal Assistant, which the company says is all about your car. Its voice-powered partnerships with Amazon and Microsoft will enable other functions that aren’t directly related to the driving experience. BMW further says its digital assistant was developed to explain different functions (“How does the High Beam Assistant work?”), provide current status information (“Is the oil level OK?”), and help answer questions (“What warning messages do I have?”) as well as for check tire pressure or turn on the HVAC system, all without lifting a finger.

One unique feature of the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant is that drivers can give it a name (for example, “Charlie” or “Joyce”) to create greater individuality and personality. (Source: BMW)

 BMW also says its system will know the driver’s favorite settings, and can even activate a combination of functions to enhance well-being. As an example, saying “Hey BMW” (actually you can call it any name you choose as long as you tell the system how you intend to activate it) followed by “I feel tired” triggers a vitality program that adjusts the lighting mood, music, and temperature in order to make the driver feel more awake.

BMW built its personal digital assistant on top of Microsoft’s Azure public cloud. It will be available to order on the new BMW 3 Series from November 2018. From March 2019, new BMW X5, Z4, and 8 Series models fitted with BMW Operating System 7.0 will be able to install the full version of the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant by Remote Software Upgrade without having to visit a dealer.

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