wife is practical. She always prefers to flip a switch or press a button, instead of asking Alexa or Google. And even though I’m the one who put a cheap smart speaker in every room of the house, I often have to agree: It’s usually more reliable to just whip out my phone when I want to arm an alarm, change the temperature, check email, look up facts, or the myriad other things a smart assistant can do.
But not in the car. When I’m driving, I want my eyes on the road — there’s too much at stake now that I’ve got a nearly three-year-old. That’s why I figured Amazon’s new Echo Auto might make life a touch easier.
For the promotional price of $25 (it’ll retail for $50), the Echo Auto is perhaps the most impressive home for Amazon’s voice assistant yet. What once took a tall cylindrical speaker, or at least a chunky hockey puck, now fits into the space of a couple matchboxes or perhaps a small chocolate-covered toffee slab. It’s got both 3.5mm and Bluetooth audio options to add Alexa to your car’s entertainment system, plus an eight-microphone array that’s so hardened against howling wind and road noise that Alexa can hear me when I’m going 70 on the freeway with the windows rolled down.
While it’s not Amazon’s first attempt to put Alexa in your car, it’s the first to come directly from Amazon — unlike the $50 Anker Roav Viva or the $150 Garmin Speak. But that doesn’t mean Amazon has given it the attention it needs to succeed.
The best part: if you’ve got an AUX jack in your car, the Echo Auto doubles as a Bluetooth audio adapter and speakerphone so you can easily stream music and take calls in your car — complete with a super-sticky washable dash mount, cables, and a powerful 12V adapter with a second 3.0A charging port for your phone. It works well enough that if you’re in the market, I’d argue it’s worth paying the $25 promo price for the Bluetooth adapter functionality alone.
And it is so, so handy for pulling up music on the go. Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, TuneIn, you name it — just ask and you’re immediately listening to your favorite artist, playlist, or song. My nearly three-year-old demands music constantly, and Echo Auto delivers almost every time I ask.
But the smarter your car already is, the less likely I’d recommend an Echo Auto to you.
It’s partly the flakiness. It already takes patience to formulate a request just right so that voice assistants like Alexa, Google, and Siri will give you what you want — but now, you’re at the mercy of your phone’s data connection, too. Every time I hit a dead zone, every time my phone disconnected from my home’s Wi-Fi or accidentally connected to a drive-by Starbucks hotspot, the Echo Auto crapped out. Plus, there were times that Alexa mysteriously forgot my saved locations or the reminders I’d asked it to send me, even with an excellent LTE signal.
But it’s mostly that Amazon has put remarkably little effort into improving the things you might actually want Alexa to do from a car, to the point some of the use cases it advertises on its website are laughably bad right now.
For instance, Amazon says you can “just ask” for the nearest gas station. Well, when I asked for the nearest gas station the answer was typically something like “Here are a few nearby gas stations: 1. Shell, 2. Chevron, 3. 76, 4. QuikStop,” which doesn’t give me the foggiest idea where any of them are or whether they’d actually be convenient.
When I asked for directions to my local Kaiser Hospital, I was directed to one in a town 25 miles away — even though the one I was actually looking for was roughly seven miles directly in front of me, on the exact road I was already traveling. It only ever pulled up a single Starbucks at a time, no matter how many were nearby. And although Alexa has no trouble pronouncing “Sheng Kee Bakery” when I ask for the nearest bakery, I must have asked a dozen times before she’d recognize that I actually wanted to go there.
“It hears you, it just doesn’t speak the language,” my wife exclaimed, the eighth time I asked Alexa when our favorite Japanese lunch spot, “Ringer Hut,” would be open*. But the language that Alexa’s missing isn’t Japanese — it’s the language of locations.
Google speaks that language. My phone’s Google Assistant got these same requests right every single time, even pulling them up on my phone’s screen so I could choose the right destination. While Echo Auto can also summon the maps app (Google Maps, Apple Maps, or Waze), it only does it after you’ve already plotted in a course to who knows where, and other skills don’t seem to use the phone’s screen at all.
Then there’s Amazon’s suggested “Alexa, let’s go on a road trip” prompt, which you might expect to launch some simple audio and game options, yes? Here’s how well that conversation went:
SEAN: Alexa, let’s go on a road trip.
ALEXA: I love road trips. I have new skills to keep you entertained. Would you like to try TuneIn Live?
Thank you for your interest in TuneIn Live. We are not able to make subscription purchases on this device.
Alexa, let’s go on a road trip.
I love road trips. I have new skills to keep you entertained. You recently used TuneIn Live. Would you like to try that again?
Would you like to try the Economist Espresso?
Here’s the Economist Espresso. Welcome to the Economist Espresso. I can tell you today’s agenda, the world in brief or quote of the day. How can I help?
What’s today’s agenda?
Weekend. We are closed today.
Alexa, let’s go on a road trip.
I love road trips. I have new skills to keep you entertained. You recently used the Economist Espresso, would you like to try that again?
Would you like to give TuneIn Live a try?
Would you like to try NPR?
(Google Maps tells me my turn is coming up)
Sorry, I’m having trouble understanding.
… Alexa, let’s go on a road trip.
After the same set of no’s, Alexa goes on to recommend a podcast search app which doesn’t recognize the names of my favorite podcasts, then CBS Breaking News, and when I say “no” to six bad suggestions in a row, Alexa finally says:
Amazon also advertises that you can use Alexa to open your garage door — even though that’s not possible with the most popular brand of smart garage door openers, which just so happens to be the same one Amazon partners with for its package delivery service that can totally open your garage door. There are a few niche ones that do work, but guess which one I bought based on Amazon’s recommendation? Yeah. I was able to get Alexa to close it by using IFTTT as a middleman, but I can’t say it’d be worth the yearly fee (though there is a free promo) that Chamberlain charges for its IFTTT integration.
And while it was kind of novel to have Starbucks prep my “usual” one-pump light whip caramel Frappuccino just by asking Alexa during my commute, then pulling up to the drive-thru, it’s kind of ridiculous that’s the only thing the Starbucks skill can do 2.5 years after it was introduced, and no other notable restaurants appeared to have similar takeout skills when I went looking. Plus, the very next time I tried it, Alexa told me “Sorry, but I’m unable to take Starbucks orders at this time.”
Similarly, the Fandango skill initially made me optimistic by rattling off a list of nearby movie showtimes, only to tell me: “I can’t currently purchase movie tickets. Try using the Fandango website.”
None of this necessarily means you won’t be able to find useful things to do with Alexa if you’re a patient power user. I was able to triage my email — star, delete, reply — and check my calendar by voice, even if I found it downright creepy trusting Amazon with the ability to read and wipe my entire inbox or schedule.
Here’s a whole bunch of other things that did work for me:
- Alexa, turn on the porch lights.
- Alexa, arm my alarm. (I have a Ring Alarm system.)
- Alexa, is my garage door closed? (I use a Ring contact sensor to measure that.)
- Alexa, set the living room temperature to 77 degrees.
- Alexa, navigate home. (Pulls up Google Maps on my Android phone.)
- Alexa, call Grandma. (I had to share my contact list with Alexa first.)
- Alexa, text [my wife] I love you. (SMS only works on Android phones.)
- Alexa, add X to my to-do / shopping list.
You can also combine these with “when I get home” and “when I leave home”-style commands that use geofencing, though they were a bit touchy in my tests. Two reminders never got delivered, and twice I’d nearly finished parking inside my garage by the time Alexa remembered to flip on my porch lights.
But the real problem with Echo Auto today isn’t the mountain of minor frustrations — it’s that today’s smartphones, not to mention Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, set a bar that Amazon isn’t bothering to clear. Practically anything I can ask Alexa to do, my phone’s Google Assistant can do better (except interact with my Amazon smart home products). And there’s nothing keeping me from using the Alexa app for location-based smart home routines, either, bypassing the need to even utter a command in the car.
Compared to my Android phone, Echo Auto is simply a bit better at hearing me with the windows rolled down, or the music up loud.
Or if your beater is in desperate need of Bluetooth.