Amazon extends voice-centric lifestyle to the car

While Alexa may have first found her place in the home, Amazon’s familiar digital assistant is now getting settled in the car as well. By Freddie Holmes

The industry has few steps left to take in its quest for a fully digital cockpit. Where there were once buttons and dials now lie screens and gesture recognition. Voice control has long been the toughest of nuts to crack, but the lag and inaccuracy associated with early systems has largely been resigned to distant memory. Many automakers are now turning to the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft for a masterclass in natural language understanding, and whilst it’s still not perfect, the technology has come a long way.

It is a trend that has been borne out of both a collective push from the industry and a subsequent pull from consumers; as the technology becomes more readily available—and capable—it is not only the early adopters that want a piece, but the mass market. John Scumniotales is Director and Head of Product at Alexa Auto, and has overseen Amazon’s move into the automotive space for the last three years. The focus, he says, has always been on bringing the Alexa experience—much loved by those who have already welcomed her into their homes via Echo and Dot devices—into the car.

It is interesting given that voice control is consistently one of the most problematic in-vehicle technologies; in 2018, J.D. Power found it to be the leading source of complaints for the sixth year running. But while the technology has widely failed to hit the mark so far, a recent study found that this may be due to the fact that, accuracy aside, drivers crave familiarity. Recent findings from the market research firm found that three-quarters of those surveyed want the same brand of voice service they use at home within their next car.

Many automakers are now turning to the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft for a masterclass in natural language understanding

“We’ve heard directly from our customers that they want access to the same services Alexa brings them in the home when they’re in the vehicle,” notes Scumniotales. It is something that many automakers have accepted, with Alexa now available in a growing number of new models. “There’s no doubt that customers prefer to use a voice assistant they are familiar with.”

From home to car

As the branding would suggest, Alexa Auto has been tailored for the cockpit as opposed to sitting at home. It has not been a straightforward task, with various tweaks required to meet the challenging and safety critical environment of a vehicle.

“Our Echo family of devices were built for the home with the assumption there is high quality Wi-Fi-based connectivity, and a not so hostile acoustic environment,” said Scumniotales. “When we first started building our offerings for the vehicle, we had to work with the fact that, even in an urban environment, the car can lose connectivity, such as in a parking garage or a tunnel.” Then there is the troublesome acoustic environment, with background noise coming from air-conditioning or an open sunroof. Meanwhile, society remains in a golden age for distracted driving.

“We have had to look at where it is appropriate to use Alexa in the vehicle,” continued Scumniotales. “We had to contextualise some of the existing Alexa experiences; it is probably best that a driver does not receive video calls whilst driving, for example. We limit some of those capabilities to ensure we provide the appropriate functionality with regard to driver distraction.”

There’s no doubt that customers prefer to use a voice assistant they are familiar with

Alexa Auto enables drivers to make traditional hands-free calls—just ask her to call a friend from the contacts list in your tethered smartphone. Then there are local search and navigation services, and the ability to interact with other connected devices at home. On paper, this is not particularly ground breaking. The key differentiator is that drivers no longer need to memorise specific vocabulary and grammar. The idea is that drivers can interact with the vehicle just as they would with another human.

“It is a simple and appropriate interface,” said Scumniotales. “We believe that voice is the next way in which people will interact with their environment, but we don’t believe it is exclusive. There are tactile controls in the vehicle that drivers, passengers and customers will continue to depend on, but while we think it will be a voice first environment, it is not voice exclusive.”

What’s the link to mobility?

Amazon may not have the most obvious ties to mobility, but the company is closely involved in one of the most significant changes taking place in the automotive human-machine interface (HMI). While the tech giant is not at liberty to divulge its position just yet, it is likely that digital assistants such as Alexa will become a key interface for autonomous vehicles. Consider how a train or bus provides updates along the way and upon arrival, or how an elevator offers instruction upon entry and exit. Only this time, riders should be able to hold a seamless conversation.

While current autonomous prototypes such as Waymo’s do feature a stop-go button, voice interface looks likely to become the norm for driverless vehicles in future. It removes the question of where to place buttons in a shared cabin, as well as eliminating the issue of grubby controls. “We think Alexa can play a great role in that future,” noted Scumniotales, “where the vehicle becomes even more of an extension of the home.”

We think Alexa can play a great role in that future where the vehicle becomes even more of an extension of the home

Another element of interest is home-to-vehicle connectivity. Many vehicle features today can be accessed via a smartphone, be it defrosting the windscreen, pre-setting the air conditioning before a journey or to check on an electric vehicle’s state of charge. Conversely, Alexa could be used on the journey home to ensure that the central heating and lights are turned on, and as the car pulls into the drive, that the garage is unlocked and ready to open. Alexa could even play a welcome home song of choice.

“If I leave my home in the morning, I could say ‘Alexa, let’s go.’ This would precondition my vehicle, potentially load traffic information and prepare everything for the journey I’m about to embark on,” said Scumniotales.

Cyber security

However, this does raise the subject of cyber security. Any device that is connected to the Internet is at risk of remote hacking, and that puts Alexa, the car, and any devices with which it can connect, at risk.

The ability to manipulate devices within the home via an in-vehicle digital assistant may seem farfetched, but there have certainly been more obscure cyber security breaches. In 2013, US retailer Target was hacked via its heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor, and in 2017, a casino was hacked via a thermometer in a connected fish tank.

Users can see all of their interactions with Alexa and choose to delete any they wish. We are very transparent and allow the customer to be in control of that experience

At the 2016 CES, Ford announced it would integrate its SYNC voice command system with Amazon’s Echo and Alexa devices, under the banner of ‘smart car meets smart home.’ Drivers would be able to control Internet-enabled devices, such as lights, home security systems, TVs and garage doors, directly from the car. The automaker doubled down the following year, stating that owners of Ford plug-in electric vehicles such as the Focus Electric could start/stop the engine and lock/unlock the vehicle’s doors through Alexa. Many brands including Volvo, Nissan and BMW now enable similar capabilities across various models.

“At the beginning of the decade there were about six systems communicating with the headunit, and now there are 2,000,” noted Harman’s then Vice President of Technology Strategy, Alon Atsmon, back in 2016. “The more connectivity you have, the more challenges there are.”

Amazon is very much aware of the trend and its implications. “When it comes to privacy and security, we’re looking at that very closely. The Alexa experience in itself requires an encrypted, trusted connection—the same is true in terms of how we interact with smart home devices, the connection between the home and the cloud, and the cloud and the vehicle,” said Scumniotales. “We take that issue very seriously. It is paramount in how we design these solutions.”

Listen up

There has also been concern with regards to how voice data is stored, used and shared by digital assistants on the whole. Many consumers are not keen on the idea of companies ‘listening in’ to private conversations—Amazon’s recent statement that an in-house team is assigned to review certain Alexa conversations to hone the technology was not well received. Apple and Google have similar initiatives tied in to their privacy policies for Siri and Google Home respectively.

Generally speaking, Alexa is only listening out for the ‘awake word’—her name—and Scumniotales is keen to highlight that customers are always in control. “Users can see all of their interactions with Alexa and choose to delete any they wish,” he concluded. “We are very transparent and allow the customer to be in control of that experience. Privacy is a number one tenet for us as we build out these solutions.”

This article appeared in the Q3 2019 issue of M:bility | Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.

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