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Amazon to let automakers use Alexa software to create their own in-car voice assistants

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Key Points
  • Amazon just launched Alexa Custom Assistant, a service that lets automakers and device manufacturers build their own digital assistants using the company's Alexa technology.
  • Fiat Chrysler will be the first automaker to use the service to develop its own digital assistant for select vehicles.
  • Amazon, Google and Apple are hoping to get carmakers to integrate their technologies into in-car infotainment systems.
  • "The real way that you're going to want to interact with a voice assistant in your car is to have it built in," Amazon’s devices chief Dave Limp told CNBC on Friday.

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Amazon introduces an in-car gadget, the Echo Auto, at an event on Sept. 20, 2018
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Amazon wants to make it easier for automakers to bring voice assistants to their vehicles.

The company announced on Friday a new service — Alexa Custom Assistant — that enables automakers and device manufacturers to develop their own digital assistant, built on Amazon's Alexa voice-enabled technology.

Even though it relies on Amazon technology, automakers can tailor their digital assistant to their liking by setting unique wake words, voice, skills and capabilities, such as search, traffic updates and navigation.

The cost to develop an intelligent assistant using the service will vary depending on the device or vehicle, customer use cases and language requirements, Amazon said.

Amazon said the solution is meant to remove some of the challenges that come with a company building its own digital assistant technology from scratch, which can be costly and time consuming. Automakers that use the service can also tap into "tens of thousands of Alexa skills and integrations," like smart home, entertainment and shopping. 

"The real way that you're going to want to interact with a voice assistant in your car is to have it built in," Dave Limp, Amazon's top hardware exec, told CNBC on Friday in a "Squawk Alley" interview. "It just takes time to do that.

"Now, with the addition of Alexa Custom Assistant, it allows us to add even more flexibility for those auto manufacturers to add it in and build it in moving into the future," he added.

The offering is the latest example of Amazon's efforts to extend Alexa's reach beyond voice-activated smart speakers. The company has baked the digital assistant into a range of devices around the home, including microwaves, clocks and smart plugs. 

"Obviously we started with smart speakers, we've extended to smart displays, we announced at CES this year with PCs," Limp told CNBC. "We think this idea of ambient computing, and Alexa powering that, it has a lot of breadth and it can be in a lot of different places."

Over the past few years, Amazon has set its sights on partnering with carmakers to bring Alexa on the road, either by embedding the digital assistant into vehicles or enabling more basic capabilities, like letting owners lock their vehicle's doors using voice commands from their homes. Last January, Amazon released an edition of its Fire TV streaming service for seatback screens.

Amazon faces competition from Silicon Valley companies like Apple and Google that are also looking to persuade carmakers to integrate their technologies into in-car infotainment systems. So far, Amazon has formed partnerships with a growing list of automakers including General Motors, Ford, BMW, Audi, Toyota, Hyundai and Nissan.  

Fiat Chrysler, which has previously partnered with Amazon on bringing its technology to vehicles, will be the first automaker to develop its own digital assistant via Alexa Custom Assistant, Amazon said. Alexa Custom Assistant will be integrated in select Fiat Chrysler vehicles through its infotainment system for cars, Uconnect 5.

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