I’ve always wanted a talking car. I don’t know whether it was the 1980s “Knight Rider” TV series, or generations of “Star Trek” shows in which the captain was always talking to the ship. But the idea of being able to have a conversation with my car has always been very intriguing to me.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a talking car — or even a fully-restored 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, like “Knight Rider” star David Hasselhoff did on that show. But I recently decided I would have the next best thing: an Amazon Echo Dot in my 2009 Honda Civic.
I bought the Dot a couple weeks ago and am thoroughly enjoying it, although having it in my car clearly isn’t an obvious application for the Alexa voice assistant technology. I ran into Amazon Alexa team co-founder Nikko Strom at an artificial intelligence conference earlier this month and told him what I had done. He seemed a little surprised and asked what I was using it for.
Well, I use it to:
- Have books read to me from my Amazon Kindle library.
- Listen to music on Amazon Prime Unlimited.
- Play audio games (like Jeopardy, delivered as an Alexa skill).
- Get the latest news (Alexa provides access to global news radio stations via TuneIn, as well as news providers such as the BBC, CNN and the Washington Post, which provide audio summaries of the latest news).
- Look up quick bits of information (such as the weather).
- Make audio notes of things I need to do.
- Act as a bluetooth speaker for my phone.
- Provide me with hands-free control of my in-car audio entertainment.
Because my Honda isn’t KITT, I had to use a little of my own ingenuity to set up Alexa. I switched on the “tethering and portable hotspot” function on my Android phone (a humble Que Carbon 5.5) and plugged the Dot’s USB cable into the USB adapter in the car’s cigarette lighter socket. The audio cable from the Dot went into my AUX audio socket in my car, and then I switched on the car (so that it would power the Dot). I then used the Alexa app on the phone to set up the Dot and link it to the WiFi on my phone.
It was actually really simple and fast. I had the Dot up and running less than 5 minutes after putting it in the car. The cool thing about this is that, now that it’s set up, I can easily take it out of my car, put it in my pocket and use it in my wife’s car as needed.
I also learned a few things that I can pass on for anyone else who wants to try this. Firstly, know that the Dot will, of course, automatically be switched on and off every time you start the car. This means that it will lose the context of whatever you are doing with it, so, for instance, if you were in the middle of listening to an album when you switched off the car, you’ll have to get yourself back to the right place in the album when you restart the car. You could eliminate this problem by using a USB power source that is independent of your car, by plugging the Dot into a laptop or USB charger with the right level of power output.
I did get a welcome surprise, however, in seeing how the Dot handled things when the battery died on my cellphone. I was listening to an album and the Dot actually buffered enough of it that when my phone died, it played not only the rest of the song I was listening to, but also the entire next song as well.
In general, Alexa does “hear” remarkably well in the car. I did find that sometimes I needed to either talk a little louder than normal or turn down the volume on whatever Alexa was playing when I wanted to get her attention. But given the amount of noise in a car, that’s perhaps not a surprise.
The folks at Ford are a little ahead of the game when it comes to getting Alexa in the car. Earlier this year, the automaker began rolling out a feature that allows hybrid and electric vehicle owners to interact with and control their cars from inside their homes using Alexa-enabled devices. And this summer, integration will expand to vehicles with Ford’s Sync 3 in-car technology. Just last week, Starbucks announced Alexa-enabled ordering via Ford cars.
But if you’re looking for an easy hack for your existing vehicle, and want to have a hands-free way of listening to — and controlling — entertainment in your car, I highly recommend trying this out. You may not become a Knight Rider thanks to this, but you’ll certainly be able to enjoy being a Day Tripper.