Jacobs CES Virtual Tour

Alexa Auto, the Amazon system that lets drivers play music, get directions, place calls and perform other activities with voice commands in the car, is adding some new features. Most prominent for radio is the ability to utter commands to control the radio and SiriusXM. Drivers can now ask for specific stations by call signs, brand names, station pre-sets and frequency, Arianne Walker, Chief Evangelist of Alexa Auto, told attendees of Jacobs Media’s Virtual CES 2021 Tour Wednesday.

The feature will be available with Alexa Auto baked directly into vehicle infotainment systems and with aftermarket Alexa Auto devices that work by pairing them with a smartphone that connects to the infotainment system via Bluetooth.

When JM President Fred Jacobs asked if Alexa would activate the over-the-air radio broadcast or a stream from an aggregator app like TuneIn, Walker said it depends on the integration the vehicle is using. If it’s an aftermarket Alexa Auto device, it will call up the station’s stream. And for systems that have Alexa fully integrated directly into the infotainment system – and the automaker has enabled Alexa’s car control features – it would play the actual AM/FM radio broadcast.

Users can also adjust the volume, bass and treble with voice commands.

Those car control features are among other new enhancements to Alexa Auto. They also allow drivers to use voice commands on their cellphone to start up the car from the home on a cold day, or turn on the heated seats or defrost the car.

Automakers integrating Alexa Auto into their in-dash systems include Ford, Lincoln, Nissan, Toyota, Lexus, GMC, Volvo, Volkswagen and Lamborghini.

In other new enhancements, Alexa Auto has a new multi-lingual mode that can switch between different languages in the same conversation. For example, if there are English and Spanish speakers in the vehicle, the voice assistant will respond in the language spoken by the user. And for vehicle navigation, users can now ask Alexa for directions from the Echo device in their home and have them send directly to the vehicle so it can navigate when they get into the car.

But What About The Data?

With people spending more time at home during the pandemic, listening to radio on smart speakers and other digital devices has increased, based on data shared by broadcasters. With that in mind, Jacobs asked Walker if Amazon might be willing to share some of its listening data with the radio industry “sort of like a ratings report.”

“As we’ve seen people spending more time in their home, it’s been a great opportunity to connect with your consumers, no matter where they are, by using a service like Alexa,” Walker responded. “That’s been a wonderful thing to come out of this situation, to have that continuity. It’s one of the things that customers are asking for, that continuity, whether they’re at home or in the car, being able to move back and forth.”

But as far as sharing listening data with broadcasters, she said the company has an obligation to its customers to “be very careful” with their data. In fact, the top reasons given by those who don’t own smart speakers for staying on the sidelines are concerns that voice-enabled smart speakers are always listening or that hackers could use the device to gain access to their home or personal info, according to The Smart Audio Report from Edison Research and NPR. “The only way we use the data is to make Alexa smarter and help our customers get what they want from Alexa,” Walker continued. But she left the door to radio at partially ajar. "There are occasions where we may aggregate data and share it but we don’t share individual data in order to protect our customers.”

Amazon, a regular participant at past CES shows, sat out this year’s virtual version. Walker participated in Jacobs four-hour CES “tour” Wednesday by invitation.