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CES 2019 Tech Preview: Amazon In The Car With Echo Auto
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DwayneD   |  @   |  
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Echo Auto, Lifestyle 1

Several months ago, Amazon dropped surprise news about the next generation of their Echo devices.

While the updates to Echo, Echo Plus, and others were expected, the announcement of an Echo device dedicated to the automobile was a surprising addition to the mix. Echo Auto was designed to live in the car, working through the Amazon Alexa app to give the user hands-free functionality for content and entertainment in their cars.

Much more info and some videos and images can be found below.

To be clear, Amazon’s focus on getting Alexa into the automobile doesn’t begin and end with Echo Auto — that’s just Amazon’s first party solution. Amazon’s auto strategy includes lots of partner devices like iOttie’s Easy One Touch and Nextbase’s 522GW among others. Amazon’s also working with OEMs like BMW and Byton, a new EV startup, to deliver an embedded solution for accessing Alexa built right into the car’s existing infotainment system.

I spoke with some of the people around Amazon’s auto strategy including Arianne Walker, who holds the title of Chief Evangelist for Alexa Auto, and a spokesman. Having not yet received my invitation to order Amazon’s Echo Auto, I was curious about the details of the device’s functionality.

Turns out that I’m not alone. According to Amazon, there were about 1 million requests for invitations to purchase the device. The first batch was released to eager users around three weeks ago. The focus is on creating a device that, if installed, can retrofit nearly every car on the road with a good old-fashioned Alexa experience. Amazon’s a friendly company, so it’s worked with myriad partners to develop products that solve this challenge.

But how does it work? First, the Echo has to know where you are. It does that by having the Amazon Alexa app request geolocation services permissions from the user. Second, but just as important, the developers over at Amazon had to make sure that the device had enough microphones to properly capture audio from a driver in a reasonably raucous car. While the amount of mics remains important, placement of those microphones is also a concern. Echo Auto has 8 microphones. The original Echo, by contrast, worked across an entire room and used a seven-piece microphone array.

Alexa in a 2018 BMWAmazon’s Alexa Software is accessible through the voice button and via menus.

About now you might be asking yourself why a device that’s sitting closer to the driver’s mouth, in a confined space, needs *more* microphones? Simple. Compared to your home, cars are relatively volatile audio environments. There’s cross talk from other passengers, and of course there’s the radio. On top of that, there’s regular, ambient road noise accompanied by the occasional siren or honking horn. Echo Auto, along with all of it’s 3rd party friends, has to feature hardware that allows its intelligence system to not only filter all ambient noise out, but to also focus on the driver’s verbal requests.

It’s a lot of engineering and expense. One has to wonder why Amazon wants Echo in the car in the first place. Arianne made it clear that customer panels showed that Amazon customers had become so accustomed to Alexa, or AVS when they were at home, that they wanted the South Lake Union-based company to figure out a way that they could take their digital assistant with them wherever they were. “We really want to make sure that Alexa is everywhere that our customers want her to be,” she said.

Echo Auto launches appsWhen you ask Echo Auto for navigation directions, the system launches your preferred map client, with the route already entered.

So with all of that demand, why the slow roll-out of Echo Auto to the over 1 million people who’ve requested it? Amazon wants to make sure the experience in the car is every bit as good as the experience in the home. And while you can always place your Echo in strategic locations around your house, Echo Auto doesn’t have that luxury — especially since it’s designed to operate in any number of cars, all of which have varying acoustic profiles. The slow roll-out allows Amazon to solicit and then act upon feedback given from all of these different environments.

From what we could tell during our time with the device, it looks like the slow roll-out strategy is working. Here’s Echo Auto recorded in real-time for everyone to see what it’s like to have Amazon curate a powerful voice-based interface in the car:

Something else worth noting is that Alexa is no stranger to CES. Years ago Ford introduced Alexa as being part of their partner strategy for their Sync 3 automobile infotainment system. But unlike Google, who sends what could only be referred to as “voice interface ambassador” to the booths and suites of so many tech companies who’ve built connexions to Google Home, Amazon was pretty silent in the public spaces of CES. This week at CES 2019? No longer:

“Our entire presence here is basically an opportunity to give people an opportunity to check these things out for themselves. In addition to the Alexa Auto booth here, we also have an Amazon booth that’s designed to showcase all the different products that either work with Alexa or have Alexa built in, and the really neat thing is that it’s not just Amazon Echo devices, but it’s all these devices built by partners who are showcasing these products at CES as well.”

Amazon assures us that in years past, even though we didn’t see them, they were there. They assisted Colorado-based Sling as the satellite content provider broke new ground in the voice-control-for-TV space — long before Siri, Bixby, and Google got there. They were on the sidelines when Ford was showing how Alexa would work with Sync 3. The difference between Amazon and Google seems to be that Amazon was happy to white label their assistance and let the partner who was integrating with Alexa shine, while Google’s strategy involved a branded presence. According to one Amazon spokesman we spoke with, Amazon says:

“We very much see CES as an opportunity to provide a platform for our partners to showcase the products that they’ve built. We’re not there to dictate how they should design their own booth or how they should set up their specific presence. We provide them resources; any support that they need to make sure the devices show up and work well. Obviously having some booth space of our own means that we have another opportunity to showcase these products.”

You can see a gallery of the various third-party Alexa products designed for the car below. Given the price of the Echo Auto ($25), and the range of third-party devices on their way to the marketplace, nearly any driver who wants access to Alexa in the car will be able to get one– whether it’s an in-dash unit like the Jensen ALX2 Multimedia Receiver, or, the smartphone-focused Pioneer SPH-10BT.

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