Somewhere between Spotify crashing and Alexa failing to locate his favourite sushi place, Rafael Rivera decided he was dealing with an unfinished product. The software developer’s rectangular Echo Auto, perched on the dashboard of his 2005 Mini Cooper, picked up his voice seamlessly over blaring music or air conditioning. But repeated restarts and clunky mapping made the on-the-go hub for Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa less useful.
“Am I part of a beta program?” he recalls thinking. “Is this thing done?”
Introduced almost a year ago and shipped to the first invited customers in January, the sometimes-buggy Echo Auto is the most visible element so far of Amazon’s ambition to take Alexa on the road.
The firm is trying to persuade automakers to bake the voice-activated digital assistant into their entertainment systems. Those efforts are gaining some traction—earlier this year, BMW and Audi began selling select models that integrate Alexa’s software. But Amazon is entering a market already contested by Google and Apple Inc., not to mention automakers leery of ceding dashboard control to Big Tech.
While colonizing the car probably won’t generate much in the way of revenue at first, just being there would help Amazon position itself for the era of voice-based services. “Amazon wants to get into the car in a big way,” says Mike Ramsey, a senior research director at Gartner who tracks the auto industry. “They sense that there is a big opportunity.”
Amazon declined to make anyone available to discuss the program, but a spokesman pointed to comments Ned Curic, vice-president of Alexa Automotive, made last month to the Automotive News: “The real North Star for us is to be embedded with all the cars,” Curic said. “We’re working very hard to get there because we believe that is the best experience.”
The firm has said it wants to make Alexa, its hub for trivia, music and Amazon products, ubiquitous. It built teams in recent years charged with making the software useful beyond the living room, seeking ties to home automation and security firms, building out voice and video-calling functionality and even exploring wearable devices and home robots.
The first tie between Alexa and an automaker was an experiment. In 2016, Hyundai Motor Co. rolled out the first application linking Alexa to a big carmaker in a tool that let owners of some models start their vehicle or set the climate control from an Alexa device.
Amazon formalized its push a year later, hiring Curic, an executive with Toyota Motor Corp.’s North American subsidiary. Curic’s team plucked staff from Lab126, the San Francisco Bay Area hardware division behind the Echo speaker, and Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud-computing arm. Amazon also went shopping for recruits who knew their way around the industry, seeking veterans of German stalwarts like Daimler AG, BMW and Volkswagen, companies that have been among the most aggressive in exploring voice software.
Hanging over the exercise to take Alexa on the road is Amazon’s failure to build a smartphone to rival Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple. About 62% of people who use their voice to control music or other applications in their car today do so through a smartphone, a market dominated by Google and Apple, according to a survey by voice technology news site Voicebot and dashboard entertainment startup Drivetime. Another 32% opt for the software included in their car’s entertainment system while 6% use different technology, including the Echo Auto.
“Amazon’s Achilles heel is not having a play on the phone,” says John Foster, chief executive of Aiqudo Inc. a startup working to tailor mobile applications for voice control. “They are going at it the best way they can. But I do think they suffer from this disadvantage that Google is really starting to make clear.”
Google, the firm behind Android, the world’s most popular operating system, has gotten automakers on board, building ties that could be used to hook drivers into Google’s Assistant, Alexa’s biggest rival in the US. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi and Volvo are all building entertainment systems on Android. “Google has a much bigger footprint in the auto industry than Amazon does,” says Ramsey. “They are getting big wins. Amazon is just starting to scratch the surface.”
Other carmakers are going their own route. Some, like Daimler’s Mercedes, have thrown their weight behind proprietary voice software. The Mercedes-Benz User Experience system, like many automaker-branded software, is powered by technology built by Nuance Communications Inc., a Massachusetts software firm.
“Each of these manufacturers wants to preserve their own brand” in the car, says Richard Mack, a Nuance marketing executive. “When you press that button on the steering wheel, Mercedes would much rather see their emblem come up rather than a Google or an Amazon or a Microsoft logo.”
Amazon has tried to assuage carmakers worried about Google or Apple’s potential automotive ambitions by suggesting Alexa could be one among several voice assistants embedded in a future entertainment system, according to two people who have heard the pitch, but aren’t authorized to publicly discuss it. Last year, Amazon released tools that let carmakers build Alexa into their cars.
As Curic’s team negotiated with carmakers, Lab126 engineers repurposed the Echo speaker’s microphone arrays and software, originally designed for homes, for noisy car environments. It avoided dealing with in-car communication systems by piggybacking off customers’ smartphone to connect to Alexa servers.
When it was released, analysts said the Echo Auto seemed to fill a gap in the market, offering a device that promised to bring modern voice control to older car models. It drew more than one million orders, Amazon said, though it is still shipping in batches, only to invited customers.
Reviewers said the device lacked polish, coming off at times like a work-in-progress. A reviewer at tech news site The Verge said some of the auto-focused applications Amazon touts on its website “are laughably bad right now”.
It’s harder to know how customers feel because Amazon, which helped popularize online product reviews, has disabled customer reviews for the Echo Auto.