Amazon Echo Auto REVIEW
Amazon Echo Auto REVIEW
PAT PILCHER lives and breathes Alexa so the idea of an auto version appealed. Sadly, Amazon’s Echo Auto failed the driving test.
Alexa is like an extra family member in our household. She’s in most rooms, and we interact with her all the time. Having a friendly smart speaker at home is addictive. Time away from her cheery voice is noticeable when, for instance, we’re out on the road.
None of this got lost on Amazon. They’ve launched the Amazon Echo Auto, which is Alexa designed for the car. I liked the idea of adding smarts to my car. At least until I tried to use the Echo Auto.
The Echo Auto is a rectangular widget that plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter. It pairs with your phone’s Alexa app to offer the same voice-activated goodness that you get at home.
Like most Echo speakers, it has two buttons on its top – an Action button, and a Mute button. To hear your requests, it uses a cluster of eight in-built microphones. Powering the ensemble is a micro USB port. A 3.5mm audio output socket connects it to your car’s sound system. Like other Echo’s, there is also a strip that glows blue when you ask Alexa a question. The bottom of the device has a square indent which attaches to a bundled air vent mount.
Our ageing Mazda has a crappy factory fitted sound system. It has neither a wired auxiliary input nor Bluetooth. It turns out that without these, Echo Auto is as useful as a cat door on the conning tower of a nuclear sub.
I didn’t find this out until I was most of the way through the install process. The Alexa app asked if I’d plugged the Echo Auto into an auxiliary or used Bluetooth. Thinking I couldn’t be the only person without these options, I persevered. Then I got asked if I could hear a test sound. I couldn’t.
Tapping one of the Echo Auto’s controls, it told me it needed to finish getting set up – using its built-in speaker!
Questions need to get asked. Why release a widget that won’t work without auxiliary inputs – even though it has its own speaker?
Not being able to put the Echo Auto through its paces in our car, I did some online research. There’s a tonne of online support forums packed with Echo Auto users in a similar predicament. Some have resorted to plunking a Bluetooth speaker in their car to connect Echo Auto. Most (including me) don’t want to clutter up their car with even more junk.
Poor design is one thing, but wait, there’s more!
Further checking revealed that Echo Auto does everything Alexa does at home. She can read audiobooks. She can tell you the news. She’ll stream music and give you weather forecasts. But there’s few to little driving specific features. The Echo Auto won’t, for instance, give turn by turn directions or warn of traffic congestion and so on.
In all fairness, Alexa does do some stuff that’s useful on the road. You can stream Spotify/Amazon music, get news, and weather forecasts or ask Alexa to tell a joke, and so on. While these are handy, they are all things I can already do with a smartphone (whose built-in speaker works).
This is a real shame as we like using Alexa. She’s the hub that drives all the gadgets scattered around our home. She keeps us entertained and informed. Wouldn’t it be great if she were useful in the car?
Here’s what I’d do if I were Amazon.
First things first, I’d launch several variants of the Echo Auto. One would have a decent built-in speaker that was useable in cars with no auxiliary inputs.
I’d also add in features/skills that are useful for drivers. Turn by turn navigation, hands-free calling/dialling/texting/message reading. I’d partner with carmakers to get OBDI integration. Then Alexa could look at fuel consumption. She could apply smarts to her navigation skills. With these, she’d direct drivers to a petrol station before the car ran out of gas. She could tell drivers if there was a mechanical problem. I’d add home automation smarts. When your car was within a pre-set distance from your home, lights and heating could switch on.
Saying all this is easy. The reality is likely to be far more difficult. Patents need to get secured, strategic alliances formed. Technologies would also need to get developed from scratch. All this takes time that Amazon didn’t invest in Echo Audio, and it shows.
As much as it pains me to say it, I recommend checking that the Echo Auto is compatible with your vehicle. I’d also suggest holding off buying until future updates make the Echo Auto a useful in-car addition. In its current state, I cannot recommend it.