Bringing the Alexa experience to my car

The backstory

A few months ago, I ditched the Google Home experience from my house in favour of the Amazon Alexa virtual assistant. While not actually launched in Australia, Alexa for the most part works fine – rarely do I need to specify the country I’m in or put on an American accent to be fully understood.

Since then, Alexa devices have spread through the house. I have an Amazon Tap down the kids end of the house for portability. My Sonos speakers are integrated so we can play music throughout the house by asking Alexa from almost any room. I’ve integrated Alexa with services like Todoist for task & shopping list management, Harmony Hub to control my TV & Xbox, TP-Link wireless lightbulbs to change the colour of my daughters’ rooms on command, IFTTT for various triggers and automations, and there will be more coming down the track.

Almost a year ago we downsized to be a single car family as my wife often rides her bike or catches the train to work, whereas I work from home and prefer catching the train when visiting clients in the CBD. So, we got rid of our sedan and chose to keep our 7-seater SUV as our kids are 3 & 5 so we wanted space for both car seats, bikes/scooters/bags/camping gear/etc. and adults.

The SUV we have is a 2015 Nissan Pathfinder which for the most part is a fine vehicle, and we’ve had it for almost 2 years now without any real issue.

The issue

As a technology person, I rely on my technology to work well. The Pathfinder while having a fantastic Bose 7-speaker system with subwoofer, has incredibly poor Bluetooth connectivity. Between my wife’s Samsung Galaxy S7, my S8 and two prior Android phones, the Windows Phone I had when we bought the Pathfinder, as well as friends iPhones; the connectivity for both hands-free calls as well as music is inconsistent and frustrating – especially for phone calls.

My wife had resorted to plugging into the car via 3.5mm stereo cable which gave her music and speakerphone, but was dangerous as she sometimes had to hold the phone in order to be heard.

I chose to purchase a Parrot Bluetooth speakerphone that clips on to the sun visor that supports multiple phones – so both my wife and I could have conversations with relative safety. Music was still problematic, and I had resigned to mainly listening to the radio.

Why do this?

So why did I choose to put Alexa in the car? Over the past few months my family had become quite comfortable with interacting with the voice assistant for various purposes, most of the time without issue.

While my wife and I both had Android devices and could use the Google Assistant, it was becoming confusing to recall similar yet different sets of commands. As Google predominantly works well with Google services (read: walled garden), the experience between being on the mobile in our car vs. at home were incongruent as one worked with its own services whereas the other worked with partner services.

I went through a few different scenarios in my head before choosing to install Alexa in our car:

Use Android Auto
  • Car does not support it, so therefore would be relying on the phone screen
  • Requires Bluetooth to work consistently
Use “Hey Google” to interact with the phone
  • Different set of commands to what we use at home
  • Drains battery as it’s constantly listening
  • Requires Bluetooth to work consistently
Use Alexa app on the phone
  • Not able to be installed on phones in Australia (yet)

* Some other generic (non-Google or Alexa) questions are down the bottom of this post

In fact, by choosing not to use the Google Assistant while in the car, it meant that to play music or set reminders we had to take our eyes off the road – which is dangerous.

One incredibly minor frustration of playing audio from your phone and using Google Maps is that driving instructions will turn the music down while they are said. (Yes, this is the epitome of first-world problems. )

By installing the Alexa assistant running on an Echo Dot in the car, we now have the same experience as a family or as individuals both at home as well as while in the car.

How I made it work

The first issue I had to address was the fact that for the Echo Dot to work in the car I needed Internet connectivity. While Americans and Europeans have had WiFi-enabled vehicles for some time yet, that is not a reality in Australia. I read an article about someone doing this in the US which helped motivate me to figure out how to make it work with an old fashioned pre-WiFi car.

Initially I considered using my phone as a hotspot due to my ample data plan, however this would mean tethering every time I got in the car which would increase the battery drain. Yes, I could plug in to keep it charged but it’s another few steps to plug in and enable mobile hotspot – which as minor as they are would get annoying after a while. The other issue is that the Echo Dot can only connect to one WiFi network – so either my wife and I would have to set exactly the same SSID and password for our mobile hotspot, or it simply wouldn’t work for one of us.

The second was power to the Echo Dot. While my car has a surprising amount of 12V cigarette lighter-style points in the front of the car (2 in the centre console, 1 in the middle thingy where you rest your arms), my concern was more around keeping the Dot running when I stepped out for a few minutes. Again, a very first-world issue – but if I was to turn the car off for a few minutes to go into a shop; Alexa would effectively forget what it was doing as it would be rebooted. So, no pause/resume of music. (*gasp*) Also the Echo Dot takes approximately 45 seconds to boot up so there’s that gross inconvenience again.

In the end my parts list looked like this:

Amazon Echo Dot $78 from eBay
4G modem $45 from eBay
4G data plan (1.5GB) $10 per month from Exetel
5200mAh power bank with pass-through $20 from eBay

NOTE: the pass-through support for the power bank is important as it allows its own battery to charge while at the same time providing power through to the Echo Dot & 4G modem. The Echo Dot has a drain of about 570mAH which means the power bank will most likely go flat overnight but will then charge back up while the car is in use. (At the time of writing the power bank had not arrived so this theory is yet to be proven.)

I had hoped that the Dot would pair with the car and being the only device ever connected would be more stable, but as expected it couldn’t even pair to the Pathfinder at all – so I had to opt for connecting it to the car via 3.5mm stereo cable.

Because of the cables I have (for now) crudely taped them down, but will look to improve that somehow at a later point.

The SSID of the 4G modem is hidden, so while note entirely secure – it is configured to go to sleep after 10 minutes so I don’t need to be concerned with excess data usage while idle.



 

Questions you might have

I had a number of thoughts before committing to this course of action, so thought I’d share them with you in case you wondered the same.

Q: Couldn’t Nissan just upgrade the firmware and give a more stable Bluetooth connection experience?

A: I had asked a number of times. Their response was that the Bluetooth software gets upgraded with the map updates. The entire entertainment system is OEM’d so beyond Nissan’s responsibility (aka “care”). I had it upgraded a few months ago but it didn’t make a difference. A number of friends who have similar models (ie. 2014 Pathfinder, 2015 X-Trail) had similar issues, and I found it to be complained about on a number of Nissan forum sites.

Q: Why not wait for the “Muse” in-car device which uses the Amazon Voice Services?

A: Because it’s not launched in Australia, and will be at some point after Amazon make Alexa officially available in Australia. I could wait, but patience is not one of my virtues.

Q: But you live & breathe Microsoft, why not make Cortana work somehow?

A: Ha!

Q: Why not just upgrade your entire car?

A: Because it’s a minor inconvenience when you think of it, however technology compatibility/interoperability/stability will play a big part of my decision process for the next car.

OK Google, time for a new voice assistant

A few months ago I wrote of my experiences with Google taking over my house, and even the introduction of the Google Home appliance into the central living area (the kitchen).

Last week the march was permanently halted, and rolled back.

 

OK Google, say goodbye

The Chromecast devices were actually removed a number of months ago as I found the experience or initially selecting an audio device slower than I would have liked. In fact it was faster to get the Chromecast with Spotify to work from an iPad than from an Android phone. I also found it fiddly having a second device present being the actual speaker – it was simply too many cables and pieces for something I wanted to be hidden and neat.

The Chromecast Audio devices were removed and replaced with quality Sonos speakers, and I have not looked back.

Next on the list was the Google Home. Overall the device works well especially as the language and functionality is localised, but it was the latter that also started to frustrate me. The same experience we often find out of Microsoft or Apple of the US being first was the same with the Google Home – it couldn’t do many things that it’s US version could.

In fact it couldn’t do basic things like reminders which was incredibly frustrating, as I could hold down the home button on my Android phone and speak to the same Google Assistant – where reminders would work.

Another key issue was the walled garden Google had built. While it played nice with some vendors, it didn’t with others (read: Microsoft). I do not use the Google ecosystem of apps and services much and as a result was limited in what I could do. I found it annoying that the only way to get my calendar ready by the Google Home was to use a workflow tool that would copy events from my Office 365 calendar to my Google Calendar.

What really got me over the edge was having to say “Hey Google” or “OK Google” to get its attention. I already don’t like it when people say they “Google” something (I’m a purist who comes from a time when Google didn’t exist but the web did, as did other search engines) – so I certainly didn’t want my daughters saying it all the time.

 

Hey Cortana?

There was little chance I would wait for a Cortana-powered speaker, especially when Microsoft appeared to be retracting from its consumer device ecosystem (eg. Band, Lumia) other than the Xbox and miscellaneous hardware.

However Microsoft and Amazon did announce a partnership to allow Alexa and Cortana to communicate and work together. That old chestnut of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” comes to mind.

 

Alexa, tell them why we’re friends now

I chose to test the waters with Amazon given they were first to market and had more hardware options.

My initial test relied on an Amazon Echo Dot plugged into an external speaker, as the built in speaker was not ideal for playing music.

Functionality wise Alexa gave me most of what I wanted out of the Google Home: play music, set reminders, tell me the weather, and other little things. One of the biggest benefits is I don’t have the call the device “Amazon” (although that’s an option, as well as a few other choices)!!

Unfortunately Amazon hasn’t launched in Australia so we have the US language pack running which presents a few challenges around understanding the occasional request but for the most part there are no issues. It’s expected that Amazon will launch their delivery service in Australia before the end of 2017 so the hope amongst fellow Alexa users down under is that a the English (Australia) language will be made available as well as localised services (eg. traffic, weather, etc.)

When I previously wrote about my experience with the Google Home I lamented the lack of integration with Sonos. Thankfully Amazon and Sonos recently launched their integration, and while it doesn’t support Spotify commands yet I can at least ask Alexa to stop playing the track on Spotify which is already playing out of Sonos speaker. Hopefully more functionality will come soon.

A key aspect of the attraction to Alexa was the amount of skills it boasts. While many of these are obscure apps that I won’t use (eg. Game of Thrones quotes, Major League Baseball stats, etc.) there are a number of skills and integrations that called to me:

  • Ability to control my wireless light bulbs without the need for a hub/controller or mobile app
  • Having my shopping list items and task list synchronised with Todoist (which required us to migrate away from Wunderlist)
  • Integration with Plex
  • Broad range of applets on IFTTT

Alexa also has a larger range of built-in songs when you ask it to sing a song, including a humorous one about losing connectivity to the cloud and not being able to perform actions.

My current setup now consists of the Echo Dot as well as an Amazon Tap which is truly wireless as it has a built-in battery which allows us to take Alexa outside when we’re playing in the yard with the kids.

 

They key reason I bet on Amazon is that they have ultimately failed in the consumer device and ecosystem space, and know that they need to partner up in order to survive. Microsoft to a certain extent is in the same boat, but I don’t expect their Cortana-powered device will have a long life whereas Amazon just released an even bigger range of devices.

The only challenge Amazon will have is where a technology company becomes a bully and blocks them from using its service. This happened quite recently with Google ripping the YouTube app from the Amazon Echo Show – which is quite similar to something they’ve done before.

So now the Google Home has gone to live with a friend who already has one and wanted an additional unit for upstairs, and I’m thankful we don’t have to use the term “Google” in our house any more.