Amazon Alexa takes aim at on-the-move infotainment with Echo speakers for cars

Jayadevan PK April 18, 2018 6 min

Amazon is testing a range of its Alexa-powered Echo smart speakers specifically designed to work in cars in a move that could potentially have them replace in-car infotainment systems.

The Seattle, US-based e-commerce giant started beta testing these speakers in India in February for a global rollout later in the year, two sources have told FactorDaily, adding the in-car speakers were being tested elsewhere in the world, too. Amazon has tied up with carmakers for Alexa-powered features in their infotainment systems and the latest move shows its ambitions to launch a range of smart speakers for cars on its own.

Echo devices – run by Alexa, Amazon’s artificial intelligence-based voice assistant – were first launched in November 2014 in the US and in India last October ahead of the Diwali season. It is Amazon’s bid to stay in direct touch with its customers, as voice becomes a dominant medium through which users interact with apps and services.

Many such products don’t see the light of the day even after tests, to be sure. But if everything falls into place, the Alexa-powered car speakers are “likely to be launched sometime in June-July,” said the first source, an Amazon employee. The devices will also be launched in India, a growing market for cars.

Amazon India did not offer comment for this story.

“Both Prime and Echo sold more than expected so they’re now bringing all products to India,” said the first source. Amazon Prime, the company’s membership service which gives users free shipping and also access to streaming video, has seen better-than-expected traction in India since its launch in July 2016. The company doesn’t disclose the number of Prime subscribers.

“More Prime members joined in India than any other country in the first year,” Greg Greeley, vice president of Amazon Prime, told The Economic Times earlier.

Amazon’s Echo Spot and Echo Show are not available in India yet.

Prime grew mostly because it came relatively cheap – at an introductory annual price of Rs 499 – and also gave users free video on demand service with the latest Bollywood blockbusters and Amazon Originals. Prime is priced at Rs 999 a year since October 2017.

When Echo, Amazon’s Alexa-powered smart speaker, was launched in India, it was first rolled out to Prime members. The Echo range is priced between Rs 4499 and Rs 14,999 in India.

Carmakers-free speakers

“We already have tie-ups with car makers to integrate Alexa into their infotainment systems. But these speakers are different. They pair with your phone and can go on top of your dash,” said the first source who requested anonymity.

Amazon has earlier partnered with carmakers such as BMW to integrate Alexa into the cars. Selected MINI cars will ship with Alexa starting mid-2018, the company has said. Ford’s Fusion Energi was one of the earliest to get Alexa. Others such as Skoda, Toyota, and Volkswagen have similar plans (also see). Here, the car’s microphones and inbuilt features such as internet connectivity are used to connect to Alexa.

The new speaker will free Alexa from carmaker partnerships. It will pair with your phone using Bluetooth and use its internet to run Alexa. This means Amazon won’t have to wait for car makers to put Alexa in the car.

“You can drop into meetings, get directions, live traffic updates and all other Alexa skills,” said the first source. “The device will be like Echo Dot or even speakers from Ultimate Ears.” Eventually, these devices might get a screen like how the Echo speakers got touchscreens. Amazon first came out with smart speakers under the Echo brand without screens but later added Echo Spot and Echo Show that have touch screens to the line-up.

There are also third-party manufacturers who supply portable speakers that have Alexa integrated into it. For instance, the Garmin Speak or Roav Viva are car accessories that have Alexa on them. People also use Amazon’s Echo Dot inside cars.

An expert described voice as “a natural interface” especially in enclosed spaces like cars. “Amazon has missed the mobile revolution – Google and Apple are the winners of mobile internet but Voice is the next domain where there is no clear winner yet,” said Rutvik Doshi, an ex-Googler who now invests in startups. Google’s Android operating system runs on 86% of smartphones shipped in 2017 and the rest is owned by Apple. Doshi worked on early versions of Google’s voice search back in 2007-08.

The race to assist you is on.

Besides Amazon, search giant Google, Microsoft and phone makers Apple and Samsung, too,  have their own voice-activated assistants (Assistant, Cortana, Siri, and Bixby, respectively). There’s a race between them to put their assistants on as many devices as possible. Google and Microsoft ship their assistants along with their operating systems and phone makers build them into the devices they sell.

Amazon’s Echo was a move to put Alexa in the living room, a space that wasn’t previously occupied by smart assistants. The car speakers extend Alexa’s reach.

India talk

Amazon has good reason to invest in India. Not only is it a large retail market expected to grow to $1.1 trillion by 2021, but it is also a large consumer internet market where companies like Facebook and Google are betting big (see: How Google is priming its Next Billion ambition in India). Unlike China, it is also an open market. But India poses challenges of its own.

As we’d written in a story that talks about how Amazon got Alexa to work for India, the company had started training Alexa to suit Indian needs more than a year before its launch in India. Having used the Echo at FactorDaily, it’s obvious that Alexa is still not adept at figuring out various Indian accents.

“Currently, their clientele (via Echo or now car) is mostly urban and English educated. But if they want to go beyond, they would need to be able to “understand” and “speak” multiple Indian languages,” said Kumar Rangarajan, the co-founder of Slang Labs, which is building a speech interface that can be used by developers to integrate voice into their apps.

India has thousands of dialects and 22 official languages. About 422 million speak Hindi, 83 million Bengali, 74 million Telugu, and 71 million speak Marathi, according to the census of 2001. About 150 million speak and understand English, second only to the US population.

To solve the language problem, Amazon has trained its machine learning models on speech recognition. It is also hiring machine learning scientists who specialize in spoken languages. Over a dozen such positions are open on the company’s jobs page.

What’s good though is that millions of users are coming online for the first time because data has become cheaper and voice is a natural way of talking to apps and services for them. “The keyboards and all other text-based input mechanisms were designed for Latin scripts and typing in Indian languages is still cumbersome. Voice-based interfaces will definitely give a big boost to usage in India,” said Doshi, Managing Director, Inventus Capital Partners.


Updated at 03:48 pm on July 23, 2018