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Taking Alexa for a ride

Adding an Amazon Echo Dot -- or a Tap -- to a car is easy enough, but there's also room for improvement. Here's what we wish Alexa could do in transit today.

Alexa, the ever-present voice control assistant living inside Amazon's Echo, Echo Dot and Tap products, has been a useful addition to the CNET Smart Home -- our spot in the Kentucky countryside for testing out all sorts of connected gadgets and gizmos (the Echo, Echo Dot and Tap included).

Using the word "Alexa" to wake up the Echo and Echo Dot, and a single button press, or "tap," to trigger the Tap, you can ask these smart speakers questions and control lights, thermostats, garage doors, security systems and more from the comfort of your couch. It's simple and kinda fun (the latter a particular bonus in the land of Stepford-ized white plastic hubs and their vague, and often false, claims about completely streamlining your smart home experience).

While all of that Alexa-related functionality is handy when you're at home, we also want voice control to deliver on the go, as a readily available alternative to using a touchscreen. Placing calls, sending texts and emails, as well as giving us turn-by-turn directions -- all of this would be incredibly useful while we're driving. Factor in all of the smart-home stuff Alexa can already do and we'd have a pretty powerful piece of car tech.

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Even if it's not their intended use, both of Amazon's new Alexa-based products have potential to work in your car. The hockey-puck-shaped Echo Dot is smaller than the original Echo, and fits neatly in a cup holder. The Tap is battery-powered. We thought it would make sense to take them both on the road and see how they'd fare as in-transit bridges to our Smart Home.

Alexa's been stuck inside for too long

Last month we wrote about the relationship between cars and smart-home tech. The takeaway was that while there's a lot of potential in this fledgling industry, there isn't a ton of stuff you can do today to control your home from your car. That's especially true when you try to search for DIY voice control integrations via Amazon's Alexa. The Automatic Car Adapter comes the closest -- and has an Alexa Skill -- but you can only ask three questions (where your car is located, how much gas you have and how far you drove last week), all things you'd presumably ask Alexa from home rather than your car.

But the paradigm is changing fast. Both Ford and Toyota have said they're looking into incorporating Alexa in their in-car nav systems.

So I turned on my phone's hotspot, connected both an Echo Dot and a Tap and chatted with Alexa from my car. Sure enough, she can do all of the same stuff on the road as she can from home.

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But despite being battery-powered and therefore extra easy to set up, Tap's touch-to-talk function makes it a less desirable car integration because it isn't hands-free.

That left the smaller, power-adapter-dependent Echo Dot as our preferred in-car Alexa device. It's definitely neat, and even somewhat useful, to use the Echo Dot remotely to open garage doors, or even set custom phrases via IFTTT to trigger lights and other gadgets to turn on/off as you're coming and going.

I'd like to see more functionality on the smart home side in general, but Amazon is adding new integrations rapidly as it is, so I'm hopeful that this area will continue to evolve. Specifically, though, I'd like to be able to use a single phrase to trigger multiple actions, as well as have the option of more two-way interactions with Alexa -- as in, she would alert me automatically if something triggered my Scout security system's alarm, rather than me having to ask for the status.

And after spending some additional time using the Echo Dot in the car, I realized that it has the potential to be a truly kick-ass car gadget. There are just a few things I want to see added first.

Making the Echo Dot fit for travel

The Amazon Echo Dot already has a rubber base that stayed put on my car's dashboard during testing, as well as plug-in capabilities via any Micro-USB-friendly car adapter, compatibility with standard stereo cables so you can hear Alexa through your car's speakers and (currently limited, but promising) Bluetooth connectivity. Also, its smart home integrations are broader and more reliable than what Apple's Siri-based HomeKit has delivered so far. With just a handful of tweaks, this at-home device could add a lot of value to your daily commute, both in terms of smart home integration and overall hands-free usability/safety while you're driving.

  • 3G or LTE
Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Amazon did it with the Kindle, so why can't customers opt-in to spending a bit more up-front for an Echo Dot with built-in cellular connectivity? That would rule out any concerns/issues with using your phone as a hotspot, like having to disconnect regularly to save data and re-configure everything if it happens to forget your network.

  • "Alexa, call Kevin."

Wouldn't it be great if your Echo Dot could grab contact information and other details from your phone so you could place calls, as well as send texts and emails straight from Alexa? Yes, yes it would.

  • Directions

Turn-by-turn voice control directions would be nice, too. A simple phrase like, "Alexa, I'm lost; get me home," would do the trick.

Can't most phones already do this stuff?

Sure, your smartphone already has a lot of this functionality, but it doesn't have nearly as many voice control smart-home integrations as Alexa -- and searching for apps in transit just isn't practical -- or particularly safe.

Merging the general usability side for placing calls or getting directions with Amazon's expanding roster of compatible smart-home partners would be awesome. And, if the Echo Dot gets even smarter in terms of connected device commands, this product could be the universal on-the-go smart-home hub we didn't even know we wanted.