We met with Amazon’s vice president of Alexa devices Miriam Daniel recently – the discussion was not only varied but rather interesting so we’ve split our conversation into a bit of a series which we’ll publish over the coming days on Pocket-lint.
Amazon has made no secret of the fact it would like Alexa to be built into other people’s devices. It’s said as much with TVs – you won’t need to have a Fire TV device in the future because theoretically, your TV would have Alexa built-in.
And it seems to be thinking the same way about cars. Alexa is now in an increasing number of vehicles natively, but for the vast number of vehicles already on the road that don’t have built-in voice control, there’s Echo Auto which had a million pre-orders.
Coming to more countries
On the new rollout, Daniel said: "We're obviously committed to bringing it to all the countries where Alexa is. I don't have a date for you today, but we're working on it."
We asked how Echo Auto had been received. "We've seen, you know, a lot of engagement with it. Our active customers engage millions of times a week. Although, you know, they're driving it for like small periods of time. So it validates the reason for having this product. We slowly rolled it out to our customers. And we learned a lot through this process.
"You know, when we first did the first-generation Echo we did an invite process for six months maybe. And it took us six months to make sure that in different environments [and with] different kinds of voices that Alexa would hear you and work well.
"Now, we’re going into a different environment here with a car, and we wanted to make sure that we were able to adapt it to different models [of vehicle]. What we found was the problem was bigger than we anticipated.
That's why it took us a year, because as we've rolled out to more customers [we have to deal with so many different types of cars, so many different types of Bluetooth stacks in the cars.
"We went back 10 years and looked at the top 30 cars every year in the last 10 years. And we tested with those. And we found so much variation in the Bluetooth stacks…they introduce lags in connectivity."
Amazon says these lags introduce lags in streaming Alexa’s responses and music to your car speakers. "You might ask a question and you might have to wait because of the Bluetooth stack - not because Alexa is not working," says Daniel. "So we have to work around all of that."
Daniel says not only did this create a real interoperability challenge due to the variations between vehicles but also between mobile phones. That’s because Echo Auto connects to Alexa through your phone's Alexa app, which means that not only is it dependent on your car’s Bluetooth being reliable, but it also depends on you having cellular signal.
And as we all know, that can be something of a lottery. What’s more, there are other variables, too – you need to have Bluetooth audio (or auxiliary if you decide to cable it up instead) selected in your car’s infotainment system and ensure your phone volume is actually turned up so you can hear Alexa’s responses. Alexa’s chime – the noise Alexa makes when you say the wake word - helps here because you know that the assistant is listening to you and can do something about it if it isn’t.
Testing during setup
Amazon had to adjust Alexa's responses to work with various in-car Bluetooth setups depending on how long it takes to hear the Alexa chime. Amazon says it calibrates the inherent delay the car stereo introduces so the complete response is heard.
"There isn't a database anywhere that says for this make and this model your Bluetooth stack is x and your delay is why. So we have to learn as we land. So when you're going through the setup of your Echo auto, you will see us go through this time calibration, because that allows us to you [tell what delay is needed]. We don't know what exactly your make or model of the car is, but we can tell what your stack is doing. So it was a lot of things like that that we had to do well.
"And then also different cars have different noise levels, how much ambient noise [there is] and where the speakers are located and how that plays into the acoustics in the car. So we have to go and test with all these cars to make sure that the wake word works really well in all these conditions. So that took us some time.
And, as you’d expect, phone updates were also an issue. "Different phone models were constantly getting updates, you know, changing permissions, changing APIs (the way apps interact with Bluetooth or other phone features, for example).
And so we had to make sure we had a certain amount of robustness built-in for all of that.. and I think it's working pretty well. That’s why we're going to start rolling it out to different countries."