Autos

Demand for Amazon Alexa in cars is 'through the roof,' exec says

Key Points
  • Demand from automakers for Amazon's voice-enabled technology is "through the roof" heading into 2020, according to Ned Curic, vice president of Alexa Auto.
  • Amazon wants to capitalize on a growing demand for connectivity in vehicles and create a seamless ecosystem for Alexa on the go and at home.
  • Amazon has announced partnerships with 10 automakers. Additional tie-ups, expanded relationships and increased functionality with current automakers are expected next year and beyond.
General Motors on Sept. 25, 2019 announced it is partnering with Amazon to enable the tech company's Alexa voice assistant in millions of its vehicles.
GM

SEATTLE — Demand from automakers for Amazon's voice-enabled technology is "through the roof" heading into 2020, according to Ned Curic, vice president of Alexa Auto.

"Two and a half years ago, we had nothing," he told CNBC following a tour of Amazon's headquarters last week in Seattle. "We're much further than I thought we would be. I'm quite pleased with the speed we were able to build and deploy."

Amazon wants to capitalize on a growing demand for connectivity in vehicles and create a seamless ecosystem for Alexa on the go and at home. Automakers are looking to improve current in-vehicle voice recognition systems after years of lackluster offerings that have harmed quality and reliability ratings.

Automakers started partnering with Amazon for rudimentary tasks such as starting the vehicle remotely through Alexa in-home devices in 2016. The sides have since expanded those collaborations to embed Alexa into vehicles, allowing Alexa to control some vehicle functions. The tech giant also earlier this year released Echo Auto, an aftermarket in-vehicle device with Alexa.

Amazon has announced partnerships with 10 automakers. Additional tie-ups, expanded relationships and increased functionality with current vehicles are expected next year and beyond.

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Arianne Walker, Amazon chief evangelist of Alexa Auto, said the tech giant is "essentially talking" with all major automakers on partnering in some form.

"It's really more of a matter of getting things lined up for the cars that are going to be released as opposed to any hesitation," she said.

Amazon also could potentially bring Amazon's Fire TV streaming service into rear-seat entertainment systems, according to Curic, a former executive with Toyota Motor. The company, he said, is analyzing if it's something that's needed given the proliferation of smartphones and tablets.

"There is a lot of demand by automakers for having something like a Fire TV in a rear seat," he said. "They still think it's very important. It's something we're going to have to figure out. We're doing lots of data analysis."

Alexa in-vehicle

General Motors has announced the largest plans to embed Alexa into its vehicles. The automaker in September said the technology will be available on millions of newer Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC vehicles with compatible infotainment systems in the first half of next year.

"This brings the best of two fantastic companies," Santiago Chamorro, GM's vice president of global connected services, told CNBC when announcing the plans. "We have listened to our customers, and their insights are clear, they want to carry those ecosystems into their vehicles."

A Buick Encore GX with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant on display outside the company's headquarters on Dec. 16, 2019 in Seattle.
Michael Wayland / CNBC

Audi, BMW and Volkswagen are among the other automakers to partner with Amazon to bring Alexa into their vehicles. Ford Motor was the first automaker to allow Alexa into its vehicles through a mobile app-based implementation, while Audi earlier this year became the first to embed the technology into a vehicle with the all-electric Audi e-tron.

Amazon, according to Curic, believes embedding the voice assistant into the vehicle offers far greater potential than having it connected to the Alexa app and mirrored on a vehicle's infotainment screen. By embedding Alexa into a vehicle's system, the voice assistant can communicate with home devices, offer Alexa services and assist in controlling vehicle settings.

"You can do so much more," he said. "You can bring tons of vehicle value through that experience."

With the downloaded Alexa infotainment app, GM drivers will be able to control smart devices in their home such as thermostats and lights in addition to controlling in-vehicle features such as their radio, phone and navigation. A cell phone is not required to use the features.

The new Audi E-Tron unveiled. 
Meghan Reeder | CNBC

Pay-to-say?

While Alexa can offer greater potential for functionality when embedded, Amazon loses some control over how the automakers market and bundle the technology.

In GM's case, consumers will have to pay for one of the automaker's monthly data packages to use Alexa. The packages start at $14.99 a month.

Amazon, according to Curic, is "working with many (automakers) to simplify connectivity." That includes assessing ways to potentially partner with automakers on data access, he said.

"I think GM's implementation is phenomenal. I think automakers in general are going to have to figure out this data thing," he said, adding consumers are "resisting" paying additional fees for such services. "The subscription at the current rate for the connectivity is going to have to be solved."

Curic declined to discuss Amazon's contract with GM or any other automakers.

'A war zone'

Amazon's Echo Auto device, which is a small rectangular version of its at-home devices with Alexa, does not require a subscription fee. It connects to the Alexa app on your phone and plays through a vehicle's speakers via auxiliary input or a smartphone's Bluetooth connection.

Dave Limp, Senior Vice President of Amazon Devices, introduces the 'Echo Auto,' which allows users to use Alexa in their car, during an event at the Amazon Spheres, on September 20, 2018 in Seattle Washington. Amazon launched more than 70 Alexa-enable products during the event.
Stephen Brashear | Getty Images

Echo Auto can be used on older car models to allow the streaming of music, traditional in-home commands and navigation through apps installed on a driver's smartphone.

Miriam Daniel, Amazon vice president of Alexa and Echo devices, said the tech giant had to completely rethink how the voice assistant worked in vehicles compared with homes due to additional noises from air vents, road vibrations, weather and other interferences.

"When we started working on this seven years ago, we thought the home was a challenging audio environment," she said. "You have all these noise sources in the home, but, boy, when we got into the car, we found the car was more like a war zone."

Bringing Alexa into vehicles is part of a growing automotive business portfolio for Amazon that includes a consumer research website and a substantial investment in electric-vehicle start-up Rivian.