Just how smart is Amazon’s ‘new’ Alexa for your car?

Some two years after it made its debut in the US, the “artificial intelligence assistant” that Amazon would like you to put in your car, has gone on sale in Britain.

Amazon's Echo Auto lets you talk to your car - depending on your car
Amazon's Echo Auto lets you talk to your car - depending on your car

The Echo Auto – it’s short for automobile, not automatic – is supposed to let you issue voice commands to control music, check the news and make phone calls without taking your hands off the wheel. But in the journey across the Atlantic, something has got lost in translation.

In principle, the Echo Auto is a good idea. Roughly the size of a smartphone, it clips to the air vent on your dashboard and takes its power from the car’s lighter socket. It then connects to your stereo system either wirelessly via Bluetooth, or with an audio jack cable, and invokes Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, to respond to your questions and instructions.

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To accomplish this, it has to also connect to the internet, which it does via your phone. That’s a lot of connectivity, and therein lies the first problem – because the list of cars sold in Britain with which it is incompatible is surprisingly long. In some cases it’s the version of Bluetooth it doesn’t like; in others the shape of the air vents. Sometimes it’s both.

By Amazon’s admission, there are 50-odd phones it won’t work with, either – including several popular models by Apple, Samsung and HTC. So it doesn’t take much artificial intelligence to run a very thorough check before you splash out the £50 asking price.

In the event that you can tick all boxes, you might then wonder whether the Echo Auto is any more reliable than the voice recognition system already built into many cars – and with no fewer than eight built-in microphones to help it distinguish voices from other the noises in your car, it certainly should be.

But many of its responses are couched in gibberish. Upon its initial launch in America, Amazon’s suggested voice prompt, “Alexa, let’s go on a road trip”, produced the response: “I love road trips. I have new skills to keep you entertained.” A more specific request for directions to the nearest hospital took the driver to another one 18 miles further away. None of this is an improvement on pressing the buttons on a conventional radio or sat nav.

Neither is it any less trouble. Even in wireless mode, the Echo Auto requires you to festoon a cable along your dashboard, and you will want to unclip it from the air vent whenever you leave the vehicle, if you want it to still be there when you return.

What’s more, even though it currently has no direct rival as a standalone device, the Echo Auto is by no means the only way to add voice recognition to your car. Many dashboard stereos are compatible with Android Auto or Apple CarPlay and offer much the same functionality.

The latest research suggests that many users prefer to do exactly that and that the novelty of virtual assistants as separate devices, whether in the home or car, has worn off. So Amazon’s belated entry to the British car market could be seen as an attempt to offload stock before it goes out of style.

It is smartphones themselves that are likely to be the future of voice recognition. They are more portable than the Echo Auto or any of its in-home equivalents and every bit as connected to other “smart” devices you may have. Turning the radio on or the heating off are easier to do if you’re talking quietly into the phone in your palm, not shouting across the room to make yourself heard. And for in-car use, there are dozens of mounts in the shops that will fix your phone to your dashboard for around £47 less than an Echo Auto.

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