Amazon Alexa and the Echo line-up of smart speakers and smart displays are now an integral part of my life. There is one in every room at home. The kid loves it. Everyone loves Alexa. Gotten quite used to it too. Of simply speaking out a query or a request, and voila! But somehow, that experience was missing in the car. Not to say that Apple CarPlay or Android Auto were a hardship, but that seamless and familiar voice-based interaction to get navigation, music and more was missing. Infotainment systems, primarily designed to let you stay focused on the road, actually proved to be counterproductive. You’d probably spend more time trying to find the music you are in the mood for, or to get the thing to play back a message that has just landed in your phone. That is set to change now, with Alexa now a passenger in your car. The first-generation Amazon Echo Auto is now on sale for Rs 4,999 and that is probably what your car needs if you are already used to conversations with Alexa at home and you spend a sizeable amount of time commuting every day.
Whether this works for you or not totally depends on the sort of usage trends you intend. And a lot has to do with the car you may already own, and whether that already has a smart infotainment system in place. For starters, you really wouldn’t want a complex setup process, would you? I have to say that Amazon has really gotten it spot on in the sense that the Echo Auto is pretty simple to set up, and really only takes a couple of minutes to get going. And it works with pretty much any car that has a built-in audio system or infotainment system. For the set-up, Amazon has bundled an air-vent mount, an in-car power adapter that plugs into what is traditionally known as the cigarette lighter, a 3.5mm audio cable and a USB-C cable. I didn’t use the mount, and instead placed the Echo Auto on the top of the dashboard—and it has enough grip to stay put. Now, you plug in the power adapter and then power up the Echo Auto with the USB-C cable. The Echo Auto pairs with your phone with Bluetooth and you set it up via the Alexa app on your phone.
No Complications Getting it Going
Now comes the important second part of the connectivity chain. While the Echo Auto connects with your phone via Bluetooth, a lot will depend on what audio system your car has to allow the connectivity that will actually get the sound of Alexa stream through the speakers in the car. If it is an older generation system, then you might have to use the 3.5mm audio cable and connect the Echo Auto to the audio system using the AUX input. If it’s a newer generation system and your phone pairs to it via Bluetooth, then you really don’t need to worry about any additional steps. Think of it this way—you say something to Alexa, the Echo Auto connects back to your phone to generate a response or access information, and then the resulting conversation is sent through to you via the speakers in the car. Depending on the audio system you are playing with, it is either via Bluetooth from your phone or the audio cable via the Amazon Echo Auto. I tried both methods, half expecting the audio quality (particularly for music playback) to be better via the wired route, but actually, there is no discernible difference compared with Bluetooth. And that’s a very good thing.
Play My Favourite Tunes
Chances are, you’ll likely use this a lot for music. And it is incredibly convenient to simply ask for music that you want to listen to. In my case, it is quite useful, purely because my music library is massive and inevitably, I’m in the mood to listen to a track that I’ve probably been hearing for the past decade—and it’ll be buried deep in the aforementioned library. That means sifting through screen after screen on Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. And that means either taking your eyes off the road or being distracted. Not done. With Alexa, simply call out the song (admittedly, sometimes it needs additional handholding with the artist name or album name), and that gets the job done. Incidentally, you can choose between services such as Amazon Music, Apple Music and JioSaavn as the default music playback post.
Navigation, But Without One Eye on a Map
The next most popular task you’ll probably use it for is navigation. It is quite fun to simply say “Hey Alexa, navigate to office” or “Hey Alexa, navigate to Khan Market”. It works well for most landmarks and popular places. However, try to go a bit deeper with more complex addresses or locations off the beaten path, and Alexa-based navigation may struggle. A lot of that could also be because of gaps in the navigation app it links up to—on the iPhone, I could choose between Google Maps and Apple Maps. Somehow, the Alexa app on your phone doesn’t have “navigation” as a menu in settings, but instead this option is buried inside the “Traffic” option -> Default Navigation App. Coming back to the navigation, the voice guidance is well in time and to the point. Nevertheless, there will probably be that feeling that you are missing a visual cue, something we are used to when navigation using apps on the phone or even via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The ability to see a map of what is around you and be able to make a change in your course basis that knowledge, may come in handy at times. That could be the difference between you getting stuck in a traffic jam you see ahead or taking an alternate exit just in time.
Reading, Reminders, Shopping, All While Driving
If you utilize your driving time to catch up on audiobooks, the Echo Auto fits in perfectly there. “Alexa, resume my audiobook” is as simple as it gets. Audible is the world’s largest library of eBooks, and chances are you will find what you want to read, err, listen to. This is a Rs 199 per month subscription, and Amazon Prime members get a 90-day free trial too.
Even with the Amazon Echo speakers at home, we have often found it incredibly convenient to set a reminder simply by telling Alexa what we need to be reminded about and at what time on whichever day it is required. No need to scribble something on a piece of paper which you’ll inevitably misplace or pull out your phone and jot something down in a notes app. Alexa via the Echo Auto never missed any reminders about getting the nitrogen top-up in the car’s tires, getting fuel on a particular evening or even when I had to do something after getting home. Alternatively, while driving, my mind is often a pop-up of things that I mustn’t forget—most of which I inevitably forget. Now, the moment there is a pop-up, on goes a voice command telling Alexa to remind me about it. Even if I am not in the car at the time, Alexa will remind me through the Echo speaker at home or via the Alexa app on the phone—all possible options are deployed to ensure I don’t get away scot-free.
And it isn’t just reminders. You can add stuff to your Amazon shopping cart, turn on the smart lights as you are about to reach home and pretty much set up an elaborate geofencing thing that switches on or switches off smart devices in your home based on your location or connectivity to the home Wi-Fi.
I Do Not Use My Phone While Driving, But You Do
I have a persistent habit of putting my phone in the Do Not Disturb (DND) mode while driving. First, I don’t like the distraction and secondly, I don’t want to knowingly break rules that define us as road users and as society in general. My apologies to those whose calls I may have missed while behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, and advance apologies to those whose calls may be rejected till the day I finally hang up my driving boots. But for the rest of us, the Amazon Echo Auto allows voice-based management of calls from your phone. No need to take your eyes off the wheel. Simply tell Alexa the contact name you would like to speak with, and the Echo Auto will make the call for you. Alternatively, for incoming calls, you can simply tell Alexa to receive or disconnect the call. Alexa is able to do this by getting access to your phonebook, and if you are someone who likes to catch up on calls while driving, Amazon Echo Auto lets you be a bit more considerate to other road users.
Alexa in Echo Auto can also send a text message—you need to dictate what you’d have otherwise typed on the phone and send it out. But just as it is, that’s where I draw a line when it comes to trusting virtual assistants with accuracy. I do not want person Y with a similar sounding name receiving a message meant for person X in the first place.
Amidst All The Noise
You are probably wondering how well the Echo Auto does in detecting and understanding your voice. After all, a car cabin can be a noisy place. The ruckus from the outside could include the honking of other fairly obdurate road users, the noise from the road surface, or the crackle of heavy rain as you drive along. On the inside, you could have music playing back at a decent volume and people chatting amongst themselves. All that means there is enough for the Echo Auto to get distracted by. There are 8 microphones placed on the top panel of the Echo Auto which zone in well on the voice that calls out to Alexa. It didn’t fail for me at any time, whether windows rolled down or not.
Its Still a Long Road Ahead, be Sure of That
But I do feel that the Echo Auto, even though it’s a great start, still has some way to go before a voice-based control system can replace the familiarity and comfort of managing a display and touch interface. But then again, it is also about getting used to the new way of using your phone for music, calls and navigation, and everyone takes their own sweet time in becoming comfortable with a newer method. To make this change smoother, perhaps Amazon would want to look at revamping the settings menu in the Alexa app for smartphones, specifically for managing your Echo Auto. It needs to be a bit simpler, to be honest, because at this time, I find some wider options in Settings and some specific options in Device Settings in the app.
That being said, the Echo Auto needs to grow up hardware wise too. At the moment, it is completely reliant on the 4G/3G connectivity in your smartphone. If that connectivity happens to be inconsistent, which is often the case while traveling, the experience gets hampered. Music playback will be a stop-start, and you aren’t always sure if the reminder you asked it to save was actually saved or not. Amazon has the answer sitting within its family of devices—the Kindle with cellular connectivity built-in. Perhaps Echo Auto could offer a cellular version, with an embedded e-SIM for those who would prefer that. I certainly would.
Secondly, there is the small matter of powering up the Echo Auto. The power socket with dual USB ports works just fine. But if you don’t like another wire adding to the clutter in your otherwise clean car, a built-in battery in the Echo Auto could be ideal. Something with around 4 hours of battery life would be ideal for most combined daily commutes in most Indian cities—and you don’t have another device adding to the wires snaking around the center console and perhaps in between the seats.
Get One, You'll Love it
All said and done, Alexa is fun when it steps out of your home. Alexa is incredible fun for kids, in the car, in particular. But this still poses a question—does it do anything extra that Apple Siri and Google Assistant may not already do when you call out to them? The answer is not really, except perhaps managing your Amazon shopping cart. The idea here is more about adding a voice interface to your interactions with your phone while you drive. The fact that Alexa has 30,000 skills means your favorite apps can link up well with this. ESPN Cricinfo for cricket scores and updates, TED for some knowledge and more. It is not revolutionary, but the seamless experience makes it fun to catch up on the news, the weather, sports scores, your audiobooks and discover new music as you drive along. Its simply practical. And that’s its strongest pitch.