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.

Also published on Medium.

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