With a houseful of Echo devices, I was excited when the Echo Auto was released as it offered the potential to make driving safer by reducing distrations. Sadly, while it is a great little piece of hardware (and the software has vastly improved since it launched) it is limited in usefulness not by any of its shortfalls but more by a lack of a cooperative ecosystem. Ironically if the Fire Phone had been a success, the Echo Auto might have been a much more vesatile and useful device.

My scenario:

I don’t imagine everyone wants to use the Echo Auto in exactly the same way as me, but I don’t think my needs are that unusual:

  • Waze is my prefered navigation aid because of great maps and live notification of traffic and other concerns.
  • PlexAmp is my music app of choice, but I have Spotify and Amazon Prime Music (and may upgrade that to Unlimited)
  • Telegram is my messaging app of choice
  • Microsoft To-Do is my quick note app
  • my Calendars - both work and personal - live on different Microsoft hosted accounts

The smooth

Setting up the Echo Auto and getting it paired with your phone and car is simple. Power is supplied via micro-USB, and bluetooth is the easiest connection but 3.5mm output is also provided.

As it’s a small device, mounting it with a bit of sticky tape or using the optional airvent mount is quick and easy and apart from the usual Alexa glowing blue light when in use it’s a very unobtrusive addition to the vehicle.

For basic functions, such as “Alexa, Navigate Home” or playing music, and the usual Alexa commands it performs exactly as expected. The ability for it to pick up spoken commands even in a noisy car with the windows open has been very impressive, significantly better than yelling at the phone to try and get “Ok Google” or “Alexa” to respond there.

The rough

I have found the bluetooth connections not to be 100% reliable, with the occasional drop-outs meaning sometimes it didn’t respond (though it usually managed to reconnect without intervention), and responses were sometimes slower than the house-bound siblings. It does work best if you pause briefly between saying “Alexa,” and the commmand.

The problems really surface when working with 3rd party ecosystems.

To-Do / reminder / shopping list functionality is limited because it doesn’t work with the apps I use because I find the Alexa counterparts unsuitable, and I suspect the incentive doesn’t exist to extend the Alexa apps (though it might be a good avenue to introduce new users to the ecosystem!).

Calendar integration is problematic because it only supports a single calendar for each provider type, and both my personal domain and work email use hosted Microsoft services.

Messaging is limited to using Alexa to initate a call using the Echo native messaging solutions, I can’t ask her to simply send a message via Telegram to say I’m running late.

Waze intergration (and navigation in general) is lacklustre. I can get Alexa to natigate to the three saved favorite addresses, and that works pretty well. I cannot however use it to find and navigate to anywhere else because the lookup service either fails to determine my location, or can’t parse the address (whereas Waze, Google Maps, Here etc have no issue). When using Waze it would be great if the Echo Auto microphones could be used to ‘enhance’ my phone so that I could speak instructions and have Waze report an incident or add a new destination but it seems that level of cooperation isn’t there (yet).

Are we there yet?

While I’d love to say my Echo Auto is part of my drive, sadly that’s not that case and it’s back in the glovebox, where it will stay until there’s some improvement in the software.

If the Alexa internal ecosystem was stronger - a stronger To-Do competitor, or extending Chime as a trustworthy personal messaging app - the Echo Auto would be a much better proposition. With the limitations imposed on it because it has to rely on Android, iOS, and 3rd party apps to function it’s sadly only okay when the rubber meets the road.