Amazon’s second-generation Echo Auto is a tiny Echo that sits in your car’s dashboard. It has a great microphone, is easy to install and store when you’re parked, and offers an easy way to add hands-free music playback to your car stereo without Bluetooth. But it’s not as smart as a smartphone’s built-in assistant, and unless you already have Amazon’s ecosystem of smart home gadgets, it doesn’t make sense to most people, myself included.
In a nutshell, the Echo Auto is a $54.99 microphone that mounts to your dashboard and lets you use Alexa voice commands on the road. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth, then connects to your car stereo via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm wired connection for playback. Your car doesn’t need any smart devices to work, just an old fashioned cigarette lighter/power outlet and an aux input for the stereo.
The microphone end of the second-generation Echo Auto is even smaller than the previous generation (2.1 x 0.9 inches, while 3.3 x 1.9 inches is itself much smaller than the Echo speaker and puck designed for the home). It comes with an adhesive-backed magnetic mount that attaches to your car’s dashboard. I don’t have a lot of open space on my dash, and I’m a little worried that it’ll be too close to the car stereo’s volume knob. But it’s deceptively small, and I found a good spot that didn’t get in the way of any buttons or knobs.
Echo Auto gets its power from your car’s USB port (or a 12V power adapter). Your car needs to be running to use the Echo Auto, and once it’s on, you can connect it to your phone (and the Alexa app) via Bluetooth. You’ll then connect to your car stereo using Bluetooth or the 3.5mm jack on the Echo breakout box. All of this can be done in about five minutes, provided you have an Amazon account and the Alexa app on your phone.
I haven’t had any issues, and I like that I can easily tuck the junction box and wires into the cubby under the dash so everything is out of the way. Importantly, when I leave my car, the whole thing can be unplugged, removed from the stand, and stored on the center console—and plugged back in just as quickly. I try not to leave anything in my car to entice someone into breaking in, so having something that looks valuable hanging on my dashboard all the time is not going to work.
My experience with Alexa has not been that smooth. Since my colleague Sean Hollister reviewed the first-generation Echo Auto, it seems to have gotten smarter. Asking it to find nearby gas stations and coffee shops and look up store hours usually works well. But for anything that requires it to interact with the phone, like making calls and using navigation, you’re limited by what the Alexa app can do on the phone, and you’ll run into those limitations pretty quickly.
I can’t tell Alexa to just text anyone in my contacts list – they need to have Alexa messaging enabled. You can see who has opted in to this feature by scrolling through contacts in the Alexa app. From the looks of it, maybe a third of my contacts have it enabled. Amazon also has an unusually high number of current and former employees in my circle (disclosure: I used to work for DPReview, a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon), so take this with a grain of salt.
Alexa can also open Apple Maps with an assigned destination via voice command, but I still have to tap a button in the app to start or stop navigation. Siri, on the other hand, can do these things without requiring additional input from me.
The Echo Auto wants to default to Amazon services, which I rarely use.Even with Spotify set as my default streaming service, I still had to ask Alexa a few times to get it A Charlie Brown Christmas Play it there instead of Amazon Music. It also puts new events into your “Alexa Calendar” by default, even if you already have another calendar linked to your account. Do I want this Alexa calendar? I even know where it is? no no. You could easily change the default to Google, Microsoft, or Apple Calendar, but to set it up the way I wanted it was another story.
I can’t just ask Alexa to text anyone in my contact list – they need to have Alexa messaging enabled
As for the rest of the Alexa service, well, the “skills” library looks pretty straightforward. I checked out Starbucks’ reordering tip, which will come in handy (disclosure: I live in Seattle, and I have a habit). It’s no longer available, and the only Starbucks Alexa skill available tells you which Starbucks coffee roast is best for you based on your answers to a few questions. It’s useless. Amazon recently made some major layoffs to its devices and Alexa team, so I don’t feel very good about the long-term prospects for a more helpful Starbucks skill (or any other skill for that matter) in the future.
Naturally, Alexa works best within Amazon’s ecosystem. But I don’t believe that’s what I need in my car. If you have a lot of Alexa-enabled smart home devices, the Echo Auto might be a good choice. I haven’t, and I’m not sure I’d want to turn on the living room lights by talking to a device in my car. Even if I do, my phone’s voice assistant can already do it.
I do order a lot of groceries from Amazon Fresh, and it integrates pretty well with Alexa’s shopping list functionality. Being able to add something to my next grocery order while I’m driving is a legitimate use case for me, so the Echo Auto will come in handy in those situations. But it’s still rare, and there aren’t enough other useful things Alexa can do for me that I want to have an extra device in my car. If I get my act together and start using reminders on my iPhone, I can easily ask Siri to remind me that I need to buy cat food later. It couldn’t get Fancy Feast into my Amazon cart, but I’m fine with that.
The Echo Auto’s strength remains its very good microphone. This version has five instead of eight, and relies more on “improved algorithms” to understand voice commands. Even with fewer mics, it’s still pretty good. It can hear me talking at a normal volume, even with the heater and fans running at full speed. It’s harder if I’m on the highway with the windows open, but it can hear me more clearly than I expected without having to speak aloud.
Understanding simple questions and commands is what the Echo Auto does best, and even then it fails at times. I had a huge fight with Burien Press, a coffee shop in Burien, Washington, when I asked for hours, and it correctly identified it on the first attempt a day earlier. Here’s a list of what Alexa thinks I’m saying as I grow impatient:
- Variant Press
- coat of arms
- Prion Press
- Darien Press in Marion Washington
The Echo Auto is a nice piece of hardware, but it doesn’t have much practical value. The best use is probably for those with older cars that don’t have bluetooth but have an aux input. In this case, it’s an easy way to add hands-free music playback and basic navigation to your car’s built-in speakers. Still, $55 is steep — $30 feels right for this kind of thing, and Bluetooth-to-auxiliary adapters already exist. If you have Amazon smart home products, that $55 is easier to justify, but I think the overlap in the Venn diagram of “have a very old car” and “have a lot of Amazon smart home products” is very small. On top of that, the long-term prospects for Alexa getting more and better third-party skills don’t look promising.
What really kills the appeal of the Echo Auto is the device you already own: your smartphone. If you put a simple mount in your car, put your phone in it, and let your phone’s built-in assistant navigate to Starbucks, send a text message, or stream something on Spotify, you’d be better off luck. As it stands, Alexa isn’t all that smart when away from home.
Photo by Allison Johnson/The Verge
Agreed to continue: Amazon Echo Auto (2nd Gen)
Every smart device now requires you to agree to a set of terms and conditions — a contract that no one actually reads — before you can use it. It is impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we’ll start counting exactly how many times you have to tap “Agree” to use devices when we review them, because these agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t be negotiated.
To use Amazon Echo Auto, you need to download the Alexa app for iOS or Android. An Amazon account is required to log in. By registering for an account with one of these, you agree to its conditions of use.
When you set up your device in the app, “You agree to Amazon’s Conditions of Use and all terms herein.” You can browse the documentation through that link, but below, we’ve listed the 13 terms you must agree to:
final statistics: 14 mandatory agreements.