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Riding In Cars With Alexa

A few weeks ago, I received an Amazon Echo Dot as a gift, and, having enjoyed its older sister, the Echo, in my living room, decided to put the Dot to work as an upgrade on my 13 year-old Subaru Forester.

It fits neatly into the front seat cupholder and all I needed was a $10 USB adapter for the power outlet. I connected it to the internet via a Verizon Jetpack modem that I use for my train commutes, though I could also have used my iPhone via its hot spot. (Go unlimited data plans!) Setup is simple and took less than five minutes.

Herewith are the results of that experiment:

The Pros:

I can access every song in the Spotify library plus the 100 or so Spotify playlists I’ve created just by saying “Alexa, play _______.” I also have access to Amazon Music’s entire free collection and all their playlists.

I can get news, weather and sports scores just by asking.

Alexa can read me whatever is on my Kindle and will automatically pick up where I left off.

I can listen to NPR or a basketball game via Tune-In or I Heart Radio.

When I went to the airport last week to pick my son up, I was able to get updated flight information on the fly via Echo’s Kayak skill.

I now have a legitimate reason to talk to myself in the car.

Voice commands are infinitely safer than having to fiddle with the dashboard.

If I shut the car off to go grocery shopping or workout, Spotify will (usually) pick up right where I left off .

Passengers (i.e., my kids) can have it play the music they want to listen to.

I can add things to my grocery list or even buy them from Amazon as I drive

If the new Echo calling feature takes off, I’ll  soon be able to call people hands-free from my car.


The Cons:

It takes about 20-30 seconds to boot up every time I turn the car on. If you’re used to turning the car on and have the radio start playing, this can be a little disconcerting.

The Jetpack modem does not charge when the car is turned off and so I have to remember to turn it off overnight. (I mostly use the car for very short trips, so it doesn’t get a whole lot of time to recharge.) This can be annoying.

It took a week of fiddling to get the Dot to recognize the modem immediately upon starting up.

Sometimes coverage drops out in places with weak mobile signals (even though phone call don’t) and the music cuts out. It can then take the Dot another 30 seconds to reboot and a few times I’ve even had to whip out the phone app to reconnect the wifi.

While Alexa understands me infinitely better than Siri, there are still misunderstandings, especially around band names.

Spotify will often serve up a live or cover version of an older song since that’s what’s most popular on their sites, though that’s not the version I was looking for.

I’ve also realized I don’t know the official name of many songs I like and Spotify isn’t great at guessing

Alexa defaults to IHeart Radio over TuneIn Radio, so unless I specify “WNYC-FM”, I get the AM version of our local NPR station. (Not sure how to fix that one.)

Having to pick what you want to listen to next can be a chore. I’ve learned to default to “Alexa Play” and let her pick something and I’ve memorized the names of some of Spotify’s own playlists as well.

I thought that I’d be able to play commercial radio stations (especially stations in other cities) via IHeart and TuneIn and change stations just using voice commands but every time I switch stations, I get a 90 second commercial block, which 100% defeats the purpose.

The Dot does not have any sort of step-by-step GPS-based navigation or traffic reporting skills—a tie-in to Waze or Google Maps would be awesome.

Many of the skills don’t work unless you use the exact phrase they are looking for, e.g., if I ask “what time does the next train to New York leave?” it will tell me it can’t find that city, but if I ask “what time is the next train to New York?” I will get an answer. (Usually.)


Bottom Line:

Using the Echo Dot in the car can be a bit of a hassle for the short (5-7 minute) trips I usually make over the course of my day, but the geek in me still loves playing with it and figuring out new hacks for it.

For longer trips, it’s pretty amazing, both for the endless music options, and for the book and game options.