Amazon may be auto industry’s defence against Apple and Google

Amazon’s Alexa platform was everywhere at CES, despite the voice assistant not having a booth. Showing up in smart home devices, TVs, and even kitchen appliances, Amazon has apparently managed to salvage something from its abortive Fire Phone plans. Now, the auto industry is looking to the platform, as a way to stave off the encroachment from Apple and Google.

To date, Volkswagen, BMW, Hyundai, Toyota and Ford have announced integrations between their vehicles and Alexa, and suppliers like Inrix have also announced support – with Inrix adding Alexa to its OpenCar platform, and Automatic being one of the first OBD-II (on-board diagnostics) adapters to announce support.

For the auto makers, this is a straightforward way to add a capable voice control platform to their vehicles, allowing users to carry out the same kinds of queries and commands as they would in their Amazon Echo-equipped homes. The Alexa platform is very open, and revolves around companies creating Skills, that let Alexa interact with their products or services.

It also enables quality-of-life improvements when the cars are more closely integrated with homes, with features including pre-drive vehicle HVAC control, remote window defrosting, and the ability to use the car in geofencing applications like controlling smart home schedules – like turning on outside lights, firing up the air conditioner, or even starting an oven. The data flows both ways, and would allow drivers sitting at their breakfast table to check in on the fuel tank’s level, or even the location of a car while it’s away from home.

For the auto makers, and the myriad of businesses that supply components and services to them, this move is all about increasing the value of car ownership – boosting the perceived value of each ride, and easing out potential road-blocks to purchases in dealerships. Increasing the stickiness of their offerings is key, especially in an age where ride-sharing is coming to the fore and threatening the sales of vehicles in urban environments.

Collectively, the auto industry is wary of the power that Google and Apple can exert, thanks to their absolute dominance in smartphones, thanks to Android and iOS. Those mobile platforms have begun entering the automotive in-car experience, thanks to Android Auto and CarPlay, which bridge the phone and the car.

On the face of it, this is simply a way for the consumer to access their contacts, preferences, and media whilst in the car – using the car’s human-machine interfaces (HMI) to control the phone  more safely. Smartphones are also central to consumer IoT experiences at home, given that most smart home platforms are interacted with via smartphone apps when the consumer is away from home.

So that dynamic makes a lot of sense for the car experience – where the phone acts as the continuity between home, car, and even office. However, Google and Apple are both very keen on turning those cars into sources of rather valuable data, which they hope to monetize. From the auto makers’ perspective, that data land grab is lost revenue, and so there is an uneasy relationship between the two camps.

But a platform like Amazon is a lot more neutral than Apple and Google, because Amazon doesn’t share the same kind of market overlap. As it stands, Amazon is mostly interested in selling products to consumers, not muscling its way into the automotive market – at least, not in a way that’s as apparent as Apple and Google.

Amazon could, however, find itself playing a central role in the voice services that consumers use in their day-to-day lives, without really trying very hard. Thanks to the fact that it isn’t tied to a smartphone platform, it can remain rather hardware agnostic – sitting at the center of a mass of data that it can hopefully translate into improved sales through its marketplace.

That dynamic is something that the automotive industry appears to be comfortable with, as Amazon isn’t ostensibly trying to dethrone the car-maker as the central brand in the driving experience. Who knows – that time may come for Amazon, but in the current market, using Amazon to provide the in-car voice experience looks to be a much safer bet for the auto makers.

Amazon isn’t the only way that the auto giants are trying to shore up their vehicles. We recently covered the creation of the SmartDeviceLink (SDL) Consortium, which saw Ford and Toyota create a new industry body centered on the Ford-developed AppLink software, which is now the basis of SmartDeviceLink.

Essentially, SDL is a way for third party apps to integrate with the in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) system inside the car, so that the application can be controlled with the car’s HMI systems, as well as output audio and video via the car’s speakers and screens.

Of course, an initiative like SDL will require considerable consolidation amongst the auto makers, to settle on a de-facto standard approach to IVI integration. But with the value of their in-car user data, as well as the associated vehicle telematics data, at stake, the automotive industry appears to be moving to wall off its gardens to the likes of Apple and Google.