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New Alexa Auto SDK Extends Amazon’s Influence to the Dash

AAA’s distraction studies notwithstanding, voice recognition is one of the safest ways to interface with increasingly complex car infotainment systems. Even though they continues to improve, the failings of in-car voice-recognition systems have topped the list of owner’s complaints about car tech, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

Siri Eyes Free—no screen needed—is now included in many new cars, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto offer another means of using voice commands to do everything from finding destinations and getting directions to sending and replying to text messages (but both also offer on-screen help). Now automakers such as Ford, BMW, Hyundai, Toyota, and Volkswagen have integrated Amazon Alexa into their vehicles so that owners can, for example, check whether their garage door was left open or turn on their house lights. Hyundai also incorporates Google Assistant into its cars to provide similar features, as you’d get with a Google Home smart speaker.

While Alexa is also available via aftermarket add-ons for older cars (through devices such as the Garmin Speak, Logitech Zero Touch, and Muse Auto) the release last week of an Alexa Auto SDK via GitHub means Amazon is staking out an even large claim to voice assist in the car by opening the technology to a much wider range of developers, applications, and vehicles.

The SDK includes fundamental Alexa functions such as streaming media (but only via Amazon Music and Audible, of course, with iHeartRadio thrown in for the time being) and smart-home integration and it supports thousands of Alexa’s third-party skills. Alexa Auto will also tap into a car’s native Bluetooth and navigation systems so that drivers can place calls by speaking a contact’s name or phone number and search for local points of interest and navigate to them via voice command.

Given Alexa’s huge lead in the voice-assistant market and the momentum of the Amazon juggernaut overall, the SDK should alarm Apple and Google despite them making inroads into the dashboard and access to driver data. Plus, it likely raises some privacy issues, as any of the big tech juggernauts tend to do.

Amazon and Driver Data

Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto have been a godsend for drivers. They outperform most automakers’ infotainment systems and voice-recognition systems. But the two smartphone-mirroring platforms have also caused a bit of a conundrum for automakers concerned about Apple and Google’s encroachment into cars and control of driver data.

With the Alexa Auto SDK, Amazon will now be able to obtain valuable data on what drivers are listening to in the car, who they’re calling, where they want to go, when they go there, and much more. By opening up to more than just new cars and to aftermarket devices or even DIY car hackers, Alexa is poised to gain a much bigger vehicle footprint than Apple and Google.

This could bring drivers a multitude of new convenience features and finally achieve the kind of third-party-developer creativity that automakers have tried—and mostly failed—to nurture on their own. But it also raises questions like:who is listening?

Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, told The New York Times in March after the organization published a study of some Amazon and Google voice-assistant patent applications that “it’s really clear that this is spyware and a surveillance system meant to serve you up to advertisers.”

his goes to the inevitable selling of you, the real product. The thought of Amazon tracking you in the car is alarming. Just think about Alexa listening in as you sing along to Beyoncé. Having Starbucks offer you a discount on a latte as you near one of its stores simply because you were muttering about the need for caffeine could be useful. But unnerving.


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