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Amazon's Echo Auto proves Alexa is a pretty mediocre co-pilot

Alexa just can't wait to get off the road again.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

I love the idea of a voice assistant in my car: Hands-free calling, music requests, directions -- it seems like everything would become easier and safer. Can you imagine Alexa or Siri or Google Assistant guiding you in the same way a friend holding a smartphone might? "OK, you're not turning at this light, but at the next one."

This vision isn't so far off, given many of the hands-free features in newer cars. But Amazon is offering a voice assistant co-pilot that could close the gap between the "almost-there" reality of car integration and the smart cars of the future. The problem is, Amazon's Echo Auto doesn't add enough to its usually homebound digital assistant to bring it confidently onto the road.

First impressions

Amazon's Echo Auto is invitation-only at the moment, but it's easily polished enough to go to market. For $50, you get a power cable, an auxiliary cord, a stand and the device itself -- a small black box, near the dimensions of a tin of Altoids, which features the standard Action and Mute buttons, a light bar and eight far-field microphones. (It's not yet available in the UK or Australia, but the price converts to about £40 or AU$75.)

Installation, especially if you already use Alexa, is as seamless as the product is simple. You connect the stand to a vent, use its magnetic pad to hold the device in place, plug it in and connect to the Alexa App on your phone via Bluetooth. The power cable can plug into a USB charging port, or into the lighter port if you use the included adapter. And the Echo Auto can connect to your sound system with the auxiliary cord or Bluetooth. 

In both a 15-year-old Honda minivan and a brand-new Mustang convertible, I had the rig up and running within a minute.

I like the simple aesthetic and ease of setup, though I'm not crazy about the idea of using my mobile data to power Alexa whenever I commute. Of course, for customers with unlimited data plans, that won't be a barrier, and honestly, I'm not sure there's any other solution for Amazon.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Going for a drive

For people with newer cars, the Echo Auto will feel largely redundant. Sure, it lets you access music or make a call with a simple voice command rather than tapping your dash display, but those displays are built for easy access. In fact, because the Echo Auto doesn't offer step-by-step directions (when you ask for directions, it sends a push notification to your smartphone linking to a maps app), it still requires some engagement with your screen. This feels like a big missed opportunity, as the Echo Auto ends up relying on precisely what it's supposed to make outmoded.

For people with older cars, on the other hand, Alexa in the passenger seat is a serious upgrade. You can easily request songs or playlists with Amazon Music, Spotify or any other Alexa-connected services you use; you can check traffic on the way home; you can make hands-free calls. Fifty bucks to close the features gap between 15- and 5-year-old cars isn't bad at all.

One question remains, though: Is the Echo Auto simply a newer shell for the same old voice assistant? Before anything else, I asked Alexa on the Auto about traffic. I was pleasantly surprised when the Auto issued subtle tones to indicate it heard both the wake word and the question. The two indicators are a small-but-smart addition that makes the Echo Auto not only hands-free, but eyes-free.

The device can also control smart home gadgets, which is a helpful feature when you're leaving in a hurry, already two blocks away and want to be sure your front door is locked. While home automation isn't unique to the Echo Auto, it's particularly useful when you're on the go.

As I checked more features, though, I found Alexa on the Echo Auto to be a gaunt version of its usual self. In the car, Alexa can't adjust volume, let alone change audio settings like bass levels. You can't change its wake word, and it's tethered to one phone -- meaning if I stop at a gas station to grab a snack and bring my phone and my wife and kids stay in the car, they lose whatever music they were listening to.

These aren't major issues, but I would've liked to see Amazon work harder to make Alexa as at home on the road as it is in my living room. That said, it's hard to imagine how Amazon could've retained all the digital assistant's smarts without Wi-Fi or a built-in speaker.

A little something new?

The Echo Auto might be missing a few minor features, but cars are different from houses, and their users' needs are different, too. The more important question is, does the Echo Auto bring anything new to the table -- or the dashboard? Sadly, not really. Step-by-step directions, audio settings controls or even things like reading incoming text messages all could have set the Echo Auto apart, giving it compelling, car-specific features. But none of those is included.

The biggest selling point for the Echo Auto, it seems, is that it can hear your voice over road noise. And by and large, with its eight built-in microphones, it can. Over the typical noise in a car -- windows down, music up, kids yelling -- the Echo Auto hears well and responds appropriately. Once you start stress-testing the gadget, though, things get a little hairier. I sped down a highway in a top-down convertible, and the assistant really struggled to hear me. Of course passengers would, too, but it's worth noting the Auto doesn't exceed expectations there.

And perhaps that's the overriding problem with the Auto. Despite opportunities to push into new territory, to make Alexa feel truly special and indispensable in the car, Amazon's co-pilot only ever seems to just meet expectations. From the company that exploded the home automation space with its smart speaker, it's a little disappointing to see such an unambitious effort to enter the automobile space.