Amazon’s new Echo Auto — a $50 credit card-sized box that sits on your dashboard and brings Alexa to your car — is a lot of things at once. It’s a relatively cheap way to smarten up a car that might not have a snazzy infotainment system. It’s a new beachhead for Amazon in the automotive world, which the company has focused increasing attention on over the years. It’s also another place for you to yell at Alexa to order more toilet paper.
What the Echo Auto really is, though, is a symptom of the messy state of in-car software.
Almost every major car company now allows Apple’s and Google’s own respective in-car infotainment systems to work alongside their own stock software; even major holdouts like Toyota have acquiesced.
The conflict was understandable. Automakers didn’t want to just blindly cede control of the increasingly important dashboard screen to Apple and Google for fear that it might mess with brand loyalty or restrict their access to user data. But the tech companies had the upper hand on the software execution and convenience side of the equation. Eventually the two sides settled into the current equilibrium where, in most new cars, the carmakers’ operating systems simply live side-by-side with CarPlay and Android Auto.
Amazon is only trying to work one thing — Alexa — into the in-car experience, not a whole touchscreen-based operating system. That sounds theoretically easy, but the results have been scattershot. Only a few automakers — Toyota, BMW, Ford, and, just this week, Audi — have announced direct Alexa integration with their infotainment systems, and not all of them struck deals for every model.
And it doesn’t always go smoothly. When Ford originally built Alexa into its SYNC 3 system, its capabilities were seriously limited. We found the setup was nightmarish in the 2017 Ford Fusion Energi. Many of those problems went away by the time Ford worked it into the new EcoSport SUV, though the experience of using Alexa to control the car’s functions (remote start / stop, lock the doors) was still clunky.
Amazon tried other methods of getting Alexa in the car, though none have taken off. Panasonic added Alexa to the infotainment system it’s been developing with Google, but the product timeline is unclear. Anker released an Alexa-enabled device earlier this year that is similar to the Echo Auto, though it requires the use of a separate phone app, and we experienced some stumbles with the Bluetooth connection. While it most likely won’t be a panacea, Amazon also released an Alexa Auto SDK last month, essentially putting some pressure on automakers to pick up some of the slack.
The Echo Auto is a way for Amazon to side-step all of this confusion. If Amazon can marry the simplicity of the Anker dongle with a more polished and reliable experience, it looks like the best option for people who want to use Alexa in their cars.
It’s tempting to ask why people might want that in the first place. Despite their own particular shortcomings, Siri or Google Assistant can handle many of the same tasks one might use a voice assistant for while driving. And automakers like Mercedes-Benz and BMW are making their own voice assistants now, too, with deep control over the vehicle’s functions.
But the reality is, the nature of driving itself is changing. More cars are being introduced with semi-autonomous features, and every carmaker (and almost every tech company) is eyeing a potential future where human driving is optional. If the inside of a car becomes another type of living space, Alexa starts to make a lot more sense. Automakers realize this too; last year, GM announced an in-car shopping feature called Marketplace.
Finding clever ways around these messy integration issues and larger platform battles could benefit Amazon in the long run, too. Because while the automakers, Google, and Apple seem to have reached something of an armistice, there is evidence of cracks in the dam. The Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, which is the biggest automotive group in the world, announced this past week that Google will build its future in-car infotainment systems. Audi and Volvo have announced similar plans to offer vehicles with native Android Auto experiences.
If automakers continue to cede control over infotainment systems to Google, that could leave Amazon out in the cold. After all, the two companies don’t necessarily have the best relationship right now. What is Amazon’s Band-Aid solution for the present could become its best option going forward — even if the ultimate answer to all this is just an Echo Dot inside a fully self-driving car.