Alexa in your car?

Voice assistance devices are quite handy and can provide a pleasant hand-free experience in places where your hands are occupied.  So I was quite interested when I heard Amazon announcing the new Echo Auto, basically promise to bring Alexa into your car 🚗.

This is not something new, car manufacturers have been creating their own voice assistance for many years.  I have a 7 years old car that already have that built in, not just for phone calls, but also to operate the entertainment system and navigation.  Although the commands are a bit rigid, so you need to “train” yourself with the user manual to make sure that you are issuing the right command and correct syntax, but it does work quite nicely.  In my car, there is a voice button right on the steering wheel, you just need to press it, and then start with your voice command.

But today’s voice assistance in the marketplace is quite advance, and as it is connected to the internet, there are many features (or “skills” as Amazon would like to call it) that are quite handy, like asking for the weather, a specific stock quote, to read a book to you, or to ask any silly question you may have.  There are a number major players in this sector, Amazon Echo,  Google Home Assistance, Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, Samsung Bixby, … forgive me if I miss the one you maybe using.  As the name suggest, each one belongs to a major technology company and most likely only works in their proprietary hardware platform, not very inter-operable.

So getting back to our topic for today, Echo Auto.  I was excited and requested an invitation to buy for this device from Amazon, kind of a waiting list.  The wait was quite long if I remember correctly, I submitted the request on September 2018, and receive the invitation on July 2019.  A 10 months wait and here is my findings.

First impression:

It comes in a neat black box with the simple Amazon logo (also in Black) on it, definitely looks quite elegant.  Inside the box, there is the Echo Auto, a dashboard mount, a micro usb cable, a 3.5 mm audio cable, and a dual USB Car Charger.  For the introductory price of $24.99, it is not bad at all with all the accessories you get.

I was surprised to see how smaEcho Autoll it actually is, 3.3″ x 1.9″ x 0.5″, the footprint is smaller than a credit card. It is also quite light weight, 1.6 oz.  It looks nice and sophisticated.

 

Installation:

Was pretty simple and straight forward, plug it in, pair with the phone’s Alexa app.  You have 2 options for the audio output, Bluetooth or using the auxiliary audio input in the car. To use Bluetooth to your car stereo system, you will also need to pair your phone to the car for media audio, instruction for that is specific to your car, and not available in the Alexa app.

My opinion?

Positive:

    • Small in size.
    • Relatively simple to setup.
    • Looks cute.
    • Honestly, the accessories you get in the box is probably worth the $25 introductory price.
    • … I will try to look for some more.

Negative:

    • Poor microphone reception: even with the array of 8 microphones, Echo Auto can not hear me most of the time, specially in this hot summer months and the air condition on.  I actually had to turn off the AC temporarily to get Alexa to listen to me, and then turn the AC back on, not an ideal solution.
    • No screen integration: screen output is on the phone, not the car’s screen.
    • Why does it need to be plug-in? I wish that it has a rechargeable battery, and maybe I can just clip it to the visor, making it portable so that I can use it in any of my car.
    • Dashboard mount safe? I Tried to research it on the internet, but Amazon doesn’t seems to specify the type of glue (if any) used in the dashboard mount.  Car owners may have concern that it may not be easily removable in the future.
    • There are also complains in the internet regarding multi user usage on the same car.  I didn’t get a chance to try that feature, so can not comment on it.

Will I use it?

After playing with it for a few days, it puzzles me to think about what does the Echo Auto really do and the hardware inside the small footprint? what is the overall architecture?

Here is what I see:

    • Echo Auto is connected to the phone’s Amazon Alexa app
    • The phone is connected via Bluetooth to the Car’s stereo system.
    • The phone is connected via LTE/4G to the internet

This is a visual overview of my understanding of how Echo Auto works in the car:So the only thing the Echo Auto does seems to be waiting for the trigger word, listen to my voice command, and send the command to the phone? The phone is responsible to execute on the command by sending the command to the right Alexa skill, retrieve the response, and send any voice output to the car stereo system.  So wait, is the Echo Auto nothing more than a Bluetooth headset? And in my setup, as sound output goes directly from the phone to the car, Echo Auto is nothing more than a Bluetooth microphone? The Amazon Alexa app on the phone can currently do everything with the only drawback that it can not be triggered by the wake up word, you need to press a button for it to start to listen to you.

So you may have guess my answer by now, I don’t think I will use the Echo Auto.  It is really hard to justify mounting something possibly permanently on the dashboard, running wires to power it, and all it does is to send my voice command to the phone.  My current Bluetooth headset does a better job in capturing my voice as it can be placed close to me totally wireless.  Most Bluetooth headset last for days before recharging is needed.  In case if you are interested, this is how you can use your Alexa app on your phone in the car to achieve pretty much the same thing as Echo Auto:

Final thoughts:

We need a seamless smart auto integration, which should use the

      • car’s microphone for audio input
      • car’s stereo system for audio output
      • and car’s video screen to mirror the phone’s screen.

Google is doing it with Android Auto, Apple is doing it with CarPlay, and other car manufacturer are probably working on something of their own, all are work-in-progress and hopefully will mature over time.

But my hope is that somehow, somewhere, someday, and someone will create an universal smart car standard that can be plug and play with different cars, different phones, different smart voice assistance, … and live happily ever after.

Credit: some of the images are from the Amazon product page, please refer to the Amazon product page for full product description.

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