Author(s): Raghu Gopal
It has become common for people to talk to a piece of hardware in their living room. It's the evolution of searching the Internet, as smart speakers from the likes of Amazon and Google have enabled voice-activated interactions with the world around them.
To give credit where it's due, Amazon established itself as an innovator in this space. Alexa, its voice assistant, has become a leader in the fledgling market of smart speakers, and Amazon has made a growing number of users feel comfortable speaking its language (see Smart Speaker Wars).
Last week, Amazon took another step toward its goal of making Alexa ubiquitous, with the announcement of a new set of tools to build the digital assistant into in-car entertainment systems. The new Alexa Auto Software Development Kit (SDK) includes capabilities for voice calls, media streaming, navigation and search. Amazon says the new features make it easy for users to access Alexa's library of 45,000 skills — third-party programmes for easy access to additional services through voice commands. When integrated into cars, the SDK lets users control smart home devices and get weather reports while driving.
Amazon has made a series of announcements about its intentions to incorporate Alexa into hardware other than its own speakers. It launched a mobile accessory kit to encourage hardware makers to bring Alexa to wearable technology, wireless earbuds and headphones. The assistant has also been rolled out in LG televisions and personal computers from HP and Acer. Other toolkits include the Smart Home Skill API for smart home devices, the Gadgets SDK for game companies and the Alexa Voice Service.
Amazon's SDK for in-car infotainment consoles is the company's latest big effort to bring its digital assistant to additional visual interfaces. This isn't the first time Amazon has brought Alexa into cars: last year, at the CES event in Las Vegas, Amazon and Ford showed off an Alexa-powered in-car system (see CES 2017: Connected Home). Alexa was later added to cars made by Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and General Motors, but this was just to accomplish rudimentary tasks such as unlocking car doors. Amazon's new SDK, a specialised tool for embedding Alexa into the core functions of cars, takes things much further.
For car-makers, a sophisticated voice user interface that's already widely used represents a huge opportunity. The in-car console has come a long way over the past decade, as the vehicle's cockpit has moved into the digital era. But many car companies have learned how difficult it is to provide a usable interface for a complicated set of software functions. Some have even offered their own voice user interface to try to move past their touch-screen shortcomings, and have discovered that developing a good solution is also very difficult. Surveys have shown that a third to a half of users often rely on their smartphone for navigation instead, because it's easier to use than their in-car system. To take full advantage of Alexa and other voice systems, they'll now need deep integration and very easy-to-use commands.
The past few years have seen Alexa come of age, particularly in the US, where Amazon's Echo smart speaker has gained popularity. The average US citizen spends one hour per day in the car, so the automotive sector is the clear next frontier for Alexa to enter. The launch of this new toolkit highlights Amazon's resolve to incorporate its voice-activated tools into more areas of its users' digital lives.
Alexa is becoming an engine for Amazon's growth, placing the online retailer in many living rooms. Now, the Alexa Auto SDK could establish Amazon in the dashboard.