How Amazon Hopes To Make Alexa King Of The Road

connected car dashboard

When it comes to the household, Amazon’s Alexa rules the roost as America’s favored artificial intelligence (AI)- based voice assistant. It controls between 60 percent and 70 percent of the smart speaker market and has more integrations with third-party smart home devices than either Google Home or Apple’s HomeKit products. As such, the majority of smart home consumers control their smart home functions via voice with Alexa despite the fact that nearly 100 percent of Alexa users also have a smartphone with either Apple’s Siri or Google’s Assistant on it. 

But when it comes to the car, the story is a bit different. In the smart speaker market Amazon had the great advantage of being first to the field by about a year. Google has been playing catch-up with its Assistant and devices since 2015, and Apple has struggled to figure out which direction it wants to run this race in — despite the fact that Apple’s Siri was technically the first voice assistant to hit the market. But in the realm of car voice assistants, both Apple and Google have managed to more successfully connect themselves to the automobile mobile experience.  

For most consumers today, the voice assistant they are most likely to engage while on the road is the one that is already riding as a passenger in their smartphone. To bolster that presence, both Apple and Google offer mature mirroring products (CarPlay and Android Auto respectively) that give customers quick and easy access to a pared-down set of mobile apps and experiences in the in-dash display of the car. Amazon has no mobile operating system (OS) to mirror and though it is possible to use Alexa on a smartphone, most consumers don’t. 

But despite being behind, Amazon is racing avidly for a crack at being the consumer’s favored navigator. There are a billion cars on the road today. For the time being, new car sales are trending up — believe it or not. The AAA says Americans spend 50 minutes behind the wheel each day on average. According to the 2019 edition of PYMNTS digital drive report, consumers behind the wheel represent a $260 billion commerce opportunity annually in the U.S. — and the U.S population is becoming increasingly habituated to using voice controls to mediate those transactions. The digital drive report found most commuters (53.3 percent) are turning to voice assistants to connect while driving and 36.6 percent of commuters who use voice assistants connect to the internet using their mobile device.  

The market today is large and valuable and still growing, but it is also competitive and scattered with roadblocks, not the least of which is that car manufacturers have limited enthusiasm for their cars being used as delivery mechanism for another company’s OS.  

But Amazon remains committed to being competitive. A little over a year ago Amazon launched the Alexa Auto software development kit (SDK) before rolling out the corresponding piece of hardware — the Alexa Auto device designed to wire Alexa OS directly into the car via Bluetooth, Bluetooth LE or an auxiliary jack. As for what Alexa can do in a car? With the words “Alexa I’m hungry” the AI will provide a handful of suggestions for dining along the route. For drivers who have their calendars saved to Alexa, the voice assistant will suggest driving routes to optimize time around a scheduled event. And drivers who, say, want to let family members know when they are getting home can instruct Alexa to herald their arrival on their home smart speaker. Alexa can also roll the windows up and down and control the cabin temperature.  

And that is version 1.0. Amazon’s Alexa Auto SDK is very much a work in progress, and later this week the second iteration of the kit is set to drop. The new version will largely add functionality to make it easier for Alexa to stay online when the car’s internet connection is interrupted. The new SDK also enables some offline car-control features like the ability to control defrost and interior lighting. 

The Automakers and What’s Next

But perhaps more notably than what the latest edition of Amazon’s Alexa Auto SDK will have are the things that it will not as of yet. Alexa still cannot control the ignition, door locks or headlights — though Amazon says those features will appear in the future.  

How far in the future? That is where the connected car story gets complicated. Because it remains very much an open question just how integrated automakers actually want to be with the technologists who hope to make their proprietary AI every driver’s built-in co-pilot. A case in point, in fact, is Amazon’s integrations of the Alexa auto SDK with two automakers, BMW and Audi. Some of Alexa’s capabilities made possible via the SDK have been integrated — but by no means all of them. 

“We let them control building the software themselves … and it’s not the kind of full experience that we’re building,” Alexa Auto VP Ned Curic said of the current Alexa integration in Audi and BMW vehicles, according to a report by Fast Company.

Although consumers want the functions that AI brings, ceding a large part of their autonomy and control of the interior cabin of a car does not delight automakers, Gartner analyst Mike Ramsey said in the report. That is why both Amazon and Google have experience some notable pushback from auto-manufacturers in the last year, he said.  

The good news, he said, is that car makers are beginning to understand that consumer demand is going to start making the choice for them — and that they are better served getting in on the ground floor so as to avoid becoming a “dumb pipe” delivery mechanism for an OS. 

“Car companies realized that they just couldn’t offer the level of capability on their own without the power of scale that [Amazon and Android] gives them, and the ability to use all these common applications,” he said.

Moreover, Ramsey noted, Amazon might be offering automakers a the path to preserving more autonomy as its offering involves embedding a voice assistant alongside the automakers’ existing systems, as opposed to Google’s Android Auto OS which essentially asks them to entirely cede control. 

“We think the best Alexa experience in the car is one that feels like an extension of the existing in-cabin experience and complements services built by the automaker and their suppliers,” said Curic. “That’s why we built Alexa Auto as an SDK rather than a full operating system.”

And, of course, Amazon has its back door device entry point in the Echo Auto hardware — though reviews of that device have as yet not been stellar and access to the product remains by invitation only as Amazon continues to debug the system.  

“It won’t take long for the Echo Auto’s biggest issue to become apparent: It’s basically superfluous,” one reviewer said. “Since you need to have a phone with you for it to work, it basically acts as a middledevice. It doesn’t do anything you can’t do with your phone, and it doesn’t really make voice interactions any easier.” 

Can Alexa Auto get out ahead in a race to control the car — with Apple and Google leading in that race? It is probably always unwise to count Amazon out of a race, and its relative dominance in the home speaker market means it has a valuable racer in Alexa, as consumers have shown a greater fondness for talking to Alexa than to any other voice assistant.

But Alexa needs a killer use case for the car, because while it provides some useful services, as of yet Alexa as a co-pilot isn’t all that distinct from Siri or Google Assistant.