Amazon Alexa for your car: everything you need to know

Lock your door, order some groceries, or turn up you home's heating, with Amazon Alexa for your car

James Mills
Jan 15, 2019

Alexa has been such a hit for Amazon, that the voice-controlled assistant has even exceeded the tech company’s own expectations. Sales of the many types of Amazon Echo units are booming, recently passing 100 million.

Why the popularity? It’s the convenience of being able to speak to an unseen genie and have many of your wishes carried out, without having to lift a finger and operate a smartphone, computer, music player or smart TV. From changing a song, radio station or TV channel, to ordering groceries for next day delivery, Amazon Alexa can take care of all this and more.

Car makers are responding to demand for Amazon’s virtual assistant. Last year, BMW, Mini and Seat announced that they would be among the first to install ‘Amazon Alexa built-in’ to their cars. Other car makers are following their lead. It means that for the first time, Alexa could be in your car, as well as your home or office.

Bluetooth wireless technology that allows for hands-free operation of a phone has been available since the turn of the millennium. More recently, certain elements of cars’ various convenience features can be controlled through speech. Drivers who have experience of using their car’s voice-operated features, such as the phone, navigation or heating, may wonder what the fuss surrounding Alexa is all about. Often, such voice-activated systems - the majority of which are activated by pressing a button - can be frustrating, as they struggle to understand what a driver is saying.

But like Apple's Siri, which can be used in cars equipped with Apple Car Play, Amazon’s Alexa is said to deliver better voice recognition, and will provide a wider range of convenience features.

From playing audio books to checking the weather forecast, listening to news on demand or adding a date to your diary, Alexa can take care of all this and more while drivers keep their eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel. It will even let you change the heating at home, if you have a smart heating system. And with Alexa Skills – Amazon speak for smartphone apps – drivers are able to remotely check that their car is locked, the lights are off and that they’ll have enough fuel to get home.

Expected to become much more widespread in 2019 and beyond, after the new Amazon Echo device goes on sale, here’s everything drivers need to know about how Amazon Alexa works in a car, which vehicles it is built into, and how you can retrofit it to most modern cars.

 

How Alexa car works

For cars, Amazon calls the version of its voice recognition system Alexa built-in. The company provides car manufacturers with something called the Alexa Auto Software Development Kit (SDK), which allows vehicle engineers to integrate Alexa into their car’s entertainment system.

It works by using the car’s existing microphone and audio speakers. Alexa is always on, listening to conversations, something that concerns some privacy campaigners, and is activated by saying “Alexa”.

It connects to the internet either via your smartphone network, or through a car’s built-in 4G mobile data module. As you speak, the device sends your instructions to a voice recognition service in the cloud, called Alexa Voice Service, which interprets them and sends back the appropriate response.

Amazon claims that the more you use Alexa, the better it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary and personal preferences.

 

What can you use Alexa car to do when driving?

As Amazon opens up development to third parties, more features will become available to motorists. For now, you can tell Alexa to play a song or read an audiobook, phone someone, or even adjust the temperature of the car’s automatic climate control system.

Alternatively, you might need to check that trains are running on time, lock the front door or turn up the heating in your smart home or even tell a robo-vac to get busy and vacuum the kitchen before you get home. And if you forgot the mango chutney for tomorrow’s curry, Alexa can add it to your Amazon shop.

Can you add Alexa car to an older vehicle?

Good news: you can add Alexa to many cars. So long as you have a 12v cigarette style power point, and a Bluetooth enabled smartphone with internet connectivity, you can choose from Amazon’s new Echo Auto box of tricks, or a range of third-party gadgets that provide many of the convenience features of Alexa.

It means if you have a car with an aux in connection, Bluetooth streaming, Android Auto or Apple Carplay, you can use Alexa services.

Amazon is still to announce a price for the Echo Auto in the UK. Accessories typically cost between £40 to £70, and popular versions include the Garmin Speak, Roav Viva and Muse Auto. You’ll need to install the respective manufacturer’s free app on your smartphone too.

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The law and using hands-free devices when driving

In the UK, using a hand-held device, such as a phone or sat nav unit, became illegal in 2003. The penalty for those caught breaking the law is a fine of £200 and six penalty points on a licence. If you only passed your test in the last two years, the penalty carries a driving ban.

However, just because a device is hands-free and works with voice recognition technology doesn’t mean drivers can’t be punished. If you are shown to be distracted or out of control, the police can stop you. Should an accident have occurred, drivers can be taken to court, where a driving ban and fine of £1000 could be imposed.

Cars with Alexa

Amazon only launched Alexa at the end of 2014, and given that cars are typically on sale for about six years, and may have improvements made about halfway through that time, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Alexa is only beginning to filter into the latest cars. Here are the models it is currently available with:

 

Audi e-tron

The e-tron is Audi’s first electric car to reach showrooms. And it is the first to feature Alexa built-in, which is standard on every e-tron. Because the e-tron features onboard 4G connectivity, there’s no need to run an app through a connected smartphone. Instead, e-tron drivers link their car to their Amazon account, and one signed in, simply saying ‘Alexa’ brings the system to life. Audi says Alexa will be integrated into its other cars in the future too.

 

BMW

In the autumn of 2017, BMW boldly proclaimed that by mid 2018, every BMW would come with Alexa built-in. However, delays mean that hasn’t happened. The company told BuyaCar that it was not yet able to provide a definitive time for when new BMW models would begin to feature Alexa.

 

Mini

Mini says Alexa is being rolled out to customers this year, but could not be more specific with timings. It will be a cost option on UK Minis, and the pricing structure will be announced in due course. Happily, any Mini built since March 2018 and fitted with Navigation Plus pack has the in-built capability to update the software and enable Alexa.

 

Seat

Spanish car maker Seat was one of the first to embrace Amazon’s in-car Alexa software, making it available of the Leon and Ateca models, so far. To have it installed, the car must feature an optional, top-spec navigation system with WiFi integration, which means paying from £935 on an Ateca, and from £705 on a Leon. Users will need to have an Android smartphone and Seat’s Media Control app, which is available from the Android Play Store.

      

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