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Bad news for automakers: people want to hear a familiar voice assistant in their car

Bad news for automakers: people want to hear a familiar voice assistant in their car


Amazon, Google, and Apple have a leg up over the competition

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Car companies are hoping to capitalize on the growing popularity of voice recognition systems like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant by developing their own in-car voice assistants that drivers can use. But that effort may be a huge waste of money: car owners increasingly prefer familiar voice assistants, like the ones they use in their homes, over those designed specifically by automakers.

According to a new survey by JD Power, 76 percent of car owners are interested in having the same brand of in-home voice service on their next vehicle. The reasons for that are pretty obvious: they don’t want to learn a new technology and would rather just carry over their preferences and the consistency of experience from their home to their car. The report, which was sponsored by Amazon, surveyed 5,000 people who own a voice-enabled device.

That’s got to be frustrating for carmakers

This news has to be frustrating for carmakers, especially the ones that have been pouring millions of dollars into developing their own in-car voice assistants to compete with Amazon, Google, and Apple. In recent months, major automakers like Mercedes-Benz and BMW have introduced highly functional voice assistants with deep control over the vehicle’s functions.

For years, automakers feared handing over control of the dashboard screen to major tech companies. That was evident in the foot-dragging that was on display when it came to giving permission to Apple and Google to operate their respective in-car infotainment systems alongside the cars’ own native vehicle operating systems. But that battle is largely over; even major holdouts like Toyota have acquiesced.

But the auto industry isn’t going down without a fight. Major carmakers like Ford and Daimler are confident that they have the money and technical know-how to compete. They are investing millions of dollars in building their own digital experiences, including smartphone apps and voice recognition systems, so they can wield control over the process and ultimately reap all of the profit. These data-driven products could create as much as $750 billion in new revenue by 2030, including from location-based advertisements and predictive car maintenance, McKinsey & Co. has estimated.

Of course, consumers will have the ultimate say, and many of them have already made up their minds. Almost 60 percent said that “availability of the same in-home voice service on their next car would increase the likelihood to buy from a specific car company,” according to the JD Power survey.

Almost 60 percent of people said they’d be more likely to buy a new car if it had their preferred voice assistant

Arianne Walker, chief evangelist at Alexa Automotive, said that one of the things that stuck out to her from the survey was “frustrations” that people have with in-car voice assistants. “It does require the customer to know exactly what terms to say, and in the right order, and the right command structure to actually get it to work,” she said. This is why most people prefer a familiar voice assistant.

Consumers prefer a more “natural and organic way of interacting” with voice assistants, using natural language understanding and automatic speech recognition, Walker said. They want “to be able to bring that much preferred in-home experience into their vehicles,” she added. “We heard that loud and clear from consumers and that’s really what we’re focused on doing for the industry.”

Amazon is hoping to use this new data to convince more automakers to let it integrate Alexa into their vehicles. Only a few — ToyotaBMW, Ford, and, most recently, Audi — have announced direct Alexa integration with their infotainment systems, and not all of them struck deals for every model.

Not every automaker is going to acquiesce to Amazon’s integration demands. For drivers of those vehicles, Amazon offers an aftermarket device called the Echo Auto. The credit card-sized gadget sits on your dashboard and brings Alexa capabilities to your car via an auxiliary jack or over a smartphone’s existing Bluetooth setup. Amazon recently said it had received over a million preorders for the device.

All of this may soon be moot, though

“Our North Star is really about an embedded experience into the head unit of the vehicle,” Walker said, “making that experience really sort of easy and seamless for consumers.”

All of this may soon be moot, though. More and more vehicles are shipping with name-brand voice assistants, and analysts predict that more are on the way. According to ABI Research, a market-foresight advisory firm, 20 million vehicles shipping in 2023 are expected to enable one or more of these assistants. That could represent a major coup by Silicon Valley, said Shiv Patel, a smart mobility and automotive analyst at ABI Research.

“Overall, these partnerships represent a significant step forward for Amazon and Google as they could pave the way for them to eventually displace OEM-branded assistants in-vehicle altogether and be the sole voice assistant in the vehicle, extending their brand and providing access to new in-vehicle data,” Patel said.