Amazon’s Echo ambient voice interface device is a breakthrough with growing implications for the future of computing. And the relationship developing between Amazon and Ford to add vehicle-related functions to Echo’s cloud service is one more piece of evidence to show how vast Echo’s potential could be. Soon you will be able simply to speak in your living room to turn on your car, set its heater for 72, or perform all sorts of other tasks relating to your vehicle.
While reviewers have compared Echo to Apple’s Siri or the “OK Google” functions on Android phones, it is way more than just another variation on those. Echo, or “Alexa” as it’s more familiarly known to its users since that’s the keyword you typically use to turn it on, is pointing to a new kind of computing.
When you start interacting with Echo by saying “Alexa,” what feels so different is that you’re talking to a computer the way you’d talk to a person. Echo is always listening, and starts doing things when it hears the keyword. You’re not opening an app, tapping a phone, clicking on a keyboard or doing some other inconvenient and non-intuitive action. The ability to get information or set processes in motion just by speaking is revolutionary. Echo is easier and more intuitive to control than any other recent consumer computer device. It is a concrete step beyond the smartphone and its clunky “app” approach, progress I for one have long been waiting for.
But another thing about Echo sets it apart from Siri or Google’s software. A rapidly-growing ecosystem of partners is building what Amazon calls “skills.” That allows it to benefit from energies far outside Amazon and gives Echo the ability, notably, to become the de facto interface for the consumer “Internet of things.” Many makers of of all sorts of devices–for example doorbells, lighting, appliances, HVAC systems, and garage door openers–are building Echo skills.
If you want to control how things work it makes sense to be able to just say so. Ford’s integration of Echo into the car is concrete evidence of how significant this may become. “The car now becomes a node in the Internet lifestyle,” says Thilo Koslowski, automotive practice leader at Gartner and a longtime advocate and prognosticator of the changes underway.
With Ford’s Echo integration, a voice-control pathway is being built from the home to the car and back again. Says Don Butler, who oversees Ford’s work in connected vehicles: “Now while you’re inside the vehicle you will be able to say ‘Alexa: close the garage door’ or ‘Turn on the porch light.'” You’ll also be able to start your car remotely. That was already possible for some drivers, he explains, “But now you will be able to do it in your living room just by talking, rather than having to go to your phone and the app and activating it. It’s about ease of use and seamlessness.” (In your car you will probably still have to pull a lever or press a button before you speak to Echo, at least for the time being.) “Little things become big things when they become easy,” efuses Butler.
The functions that will eventually get encompassed by such capabilities can only be imagined. Ford hasn’t yet launched its Echo integration, but expects to do so by the end of this year. Like most digital services, it is likely to steadily get better over time. Among its other charms, Echo has AI functionality working invisibly back in its “cloud,” and so it learns by doing.
Since last August when Amazon introduced Echo, you’ve been able to do things like ask it for the time, the weather, or more exact things like “the weather day after tomorrow in Cairo.” You can have it read a Wikipedia entry. Or you can use one of the “skills” a partner company created to, for example, lower the lights on your connected lightbulbs. More recently music streaming giant Spotify built a robust Echo connection so now you can have it play any music there. (It also plays music from Amazon’s Prime service. Its speaker is surprisingly good.) If you want to know what’s playing you can simply ask “Alexa, what song is this?” In such situations it feels uncannily similar to talking to another person who happens to be nearby.
Ford expects to take such integration to a new level. The sophisticated functions it is building with Echo appear to be unprecedented, though Amazon’s legendarily tight corporate lips will not reveal what other deals it may be doing. Ford is building more than skills. “We’re connecting our cloud to their cloud,” says Butler. Others will no doubt do the same with Echo eventually.
As Butler notes, up until now controlling connected devices around the home has required futzing with a phone or other device you must have near you and insure is charged. Granted, you will still need to learn specific words that Echo recognizes for given functions. But as the device improves, it is already enabling a wider and wider range of control phrases, and the evidence suggests that its “language” will migrate over time to closely resemble the range of things you might say to someone who you wanted to perform that task.
It also shows Ford taking an open-minded approach towards partnership more typical of tech companies than most automakers. “We’re an active and engaged participant in this evolving and developing ecosystem around the internet of things,” says Butler. “We’re not asleep or just sitting on the sides hoping and praying there’s a future for us.” Gartner’s Koslowski is impressed especially with how Ford is not only pioneering new digital functions, but that it is willing to share many of its innovations with other automakers.
Butler cautions that there remain serious challenges, mostly related to authentication and security: “We need to insure the privacy and security is robust before it’s available for consumers.” He’s got that right. You don’t want someone else starting your car for you.
Koslowski believes innovation in connectivity such as Ford’s with Echo as well as advances by other carmakers portends a transformed commercial environment for a digital age. “Connectivity is now part of the car-buying criteria,” he says. “By next year ordinary consumers may start rejecting cars without good connectivity.”
Ford is a Techonomy Partner.