Apple CarPlay and Android Auto? Dude, that’s so 15 minutes ago.
Amazon’s Alexa assistant is the latest must-have vehicle app as carmakers rush to put connectivity on wheels.
Alexa offers similar conveniences for the car that Amazon Echo users have come to expect in the home. In fact, most of the dozen brands with Alexa connectivity limit its use to the home Echo device to communicate with the car: Alexa, start my car. Alexa, lock the car doors.
But Ford Motor Co. (and its luxury arm Lincoln) takes it a step further, expanding those in-home commands to in-car demands. Called “Ford + Alexa,” the feature can be used to ask for directions on the road or play music. Sample commands include:
Alexa, where is the closest barbecue restaurant?
Alexa, play my workout playlist.
Alexa, what’s on my calendar tonight?
The in-car feature can also be used to communicate with smart-home systems. Mike Severson, Ford’s marketing manager for connected vehicles and technology, says that effectively makes a round trip from home to work seamless: Users can pre-heat the interior of the car from inside the house for a commute to work, then boost the thermostat of the house from inside the car on the return journey.
“Technology is something a lot of people crave,” says Severson. “We partner with the big boys to deliver that to the customer. People are very passionate about (their apps). Technology is increasingly more important on the vehicle purchase decision.”
From Bluetooth to Wi-Fi to music apps like Pandora, automobiles have become extensions of smartphone apps. Apple CarPlay first rolled out in upscale cars like Ferrari and Mercedes in 2014, allowing smartphones to take over a vehicle’s infotainment display. The app was slow to catch on.
In Ford and Lincoln vehicles, Alexa can queue up music and check directions. (Photo: Ford)
But as major brands like Chevrolet — the first to introduce both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in late 2015 — integrated the technology, it took off and has become an expected feature. Phone apps are now standard in everything from a compact Honda Civic to an Audi A8 luxury liner.
Amazon’s Alexa app appears to be following a similar path as CarPlay and Android Auto, spreading across the industry to more than a dozen brands and counting.
“It was creepy at first,” says Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Rebecca Lindland, a self-professed early technology adopter. “But new generations who grew up with their personal phones will expect their cars to be fully integrated with their phone and their home.”
Lindland says that as phones have become the center of the personal digital universe, car owners expect a seamless transition from home to mobility.
Infiniti even headlines the Alexa feature in a national ad campaign. “Alexa, start my Infiniti QX50,” a woman says on a commercial as she and her partner rush from the house to attend a film premiere.
Genesis, Hyundai’s luxury brand, was the first automaker to offer Alexa home-to-vehicle connectivity. It debuted in late 2016 on the Genesis G90 sedan, two years after Amazon introduced Alexa on its Echo home device. The feature is now available across the Genesis and Hyundai model lines. Downloaded as an app on a smartphone and requiring minimal setup, it comes with a number of commands such as: Alexa, ask my Genesis to start the car and set the temperature to 72 degrees.
“We’ve received good feedback from our customers who appreciate that we have the latest technology,” says Yuval Steinman, a product strategy manager for Genesis. He expects the feature to grow in popularity as it becomes more ubiquitous in homes and as competitors come to market. The Genesis and Hyundai systems, for example, are now also compatible with Alexa competitor Google Assistant.
The Ford+Alexa app appears on the car’s infotainment screen and can be voice activated. (Photo: Ford)
As Alexa proliferates, automakers say they are collecting data on what features are most popular. Ford says, not surprisingly, the in-car Alexa app is most used to play music (as with the home-based Amazon Echo). The multitude of personal assistant options offers drivers a variety of butlers to execute car commands. Ford + Alexa competes with Sync — the company’s own in-car voice command system — as well as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto voice commands to provide navigation.
“We find customers want a choice,” says Ford’s Severson. “They love Apple, they love Android, their Google maps. One of the key philosophies of Sync is providing choice … to customers.”
As with any in-car technology these days, safety is an issue. The Hyundai-Genesis system, for example, will not start the car remotely unless it’s locked. Owners must also provide a four-digit PIN — as an extra layer of security — whenever Alexa commands are given.
Recent news reports have highlighted 13 cases of asphyxiation resulting from cars with push-button starters not shutting off in garages. To prevent this from happening, if a car is started with the Genesis-Hyundai Alexa app, it will shut the engine down after 10 minutes if the car has not been unlocked.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
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