BMW’s Alexa integration gets it right

BMW will in a few days start rolling out to many of its drivers support for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. The fact that BWM is doing this doesn’t come as a surprise, given that it has long talked about its plans to bring Alexa — and potentially other personal assistants like Cortana and the Google […]

BMW will in a few days start rolling out to many of its drivers support for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. The fact that BWM is doing this doesn’t come as a surprise, given that it has long talked about its plans to bring Alexa — and potentially other personal assistants like Cortana and the Google Assistant — to its cars. Ahead of its official launch in Germany, Austria, the U.S. and U.K. (with other countries following at a later date), I went to Munich to take a look at what using Alexa in a BMW is all about.

As Dieter May, BMW’s senior VP for digital products told me earlier this year, the company has long held that in-car digital assistants have to be more than just an “Echo Dot in a cup holder,” meaning that they have to be deeply integrated into the experience and the rest of the technology in the car. And that’s exactly what BMW has done here — and it has done it really well.

What maybe surprised me the most was that we’re not just talking about the voice interface here. BMW is working directly with the Alexa team at Amazon to also integrate visual responses from Alexa. Using the tablet-like display you find above the center console of most new BMWs, the service doesn’t just read out the answer but also shows additional facts or graphs when warranted. That means Alexa in a BMW is a lot more like using an Echo Show than a Dot (though you’re obviously not going to be able to watch any videos on it).

In the demo I saw, in a 2015 BMW X5 that was specifically rigged to run Alexa ahead of the launch, the display would activate when you ask for weather information, for example, or for queries that returned information from a Wikipedia post.

What’s cool here is that the BMW team styled these responses using the same design language that also governs the company’s other in-car products. So if you see the weather forecast from Alexa, that’ll look exactly like the weather forecast from BMW’s own Connected Drive system. The only difference is the “Alexa” name at the top-left of the screen.

All of this sounds easy, but I’m sure it took a good bit of negotiation with Amazon to build a system like this, especially because there’s an important second part to this integration that’s quite unique. The queries, which you start by pushing the usual “talk” button in the car (in newer models, the Alexa wake word feature will also work), are first sent to BMW’s servers before they go to Amazon. BMW wants to keep control over the data and ensure its users’ privacy, so it added this proxy in the middle. That means there’s a bit of an extra lag in getting responses from Amazon, but the team is working hard on reducing this, and for many of the queries we tried during my demo, it was already negligible.

As the team told me, the first thing it had to build was a way to switch that can route your queries to the right service. The car, after all, already has a built-in speech recognition service that lets you set directions in the navigation system, for example. Now, it has to recognize that the speaker said “Alexa” at the beginning of the query, then route it to the Alexa service. The team also stressed that we’re talking about a very deep integration here. “We’re not just streaming everything through your smartphone or using some plug-and-play solution,” a BMW spokesperson noted.

“You get what you’d expect from BMW, a deep integration, and to do that, we use the technology we already have in the car, especially the built-in SIM card.”

One of the advantages of Alexa’s open ecosystem is its skills. Not every skill makes sense in the context of the car, and some could be outright distracting, so the team is curating a list of skills that you’ll be able to use in the car.

It’s no secret that BMW is also working with Microsoft (and many of its cloud services run on Azure). BMW argues that Alexa and Cortana have different strengths, though, with Cortana being about productivity and a connection to Office 365, for example. It’s easy to imagine a future where you could call up both Alexa and Cortana from your car — and that’s surely why BMW built its own system for routing voice commands and why it wants to have control over this process.

BMW tells me that it’ll look at how users will use the new service and tune it accordingly. Because a lot of the functionality runs in the cloud, updates are obviously easy and the team can rapidly release new features — just like any other software company.

Daimler’s car2go car sharing service adds its first U.S. city in four years

Car2go, the free-floating car-sharing service owned by Daimler, launched in Chicago this week—the company’s 25th market globally. The car-sharing company, which lets customers rent out vehicles on a short-term basis, has been steadily expanding in the past several years, adding to and changing up its fleet beyond the diminutive Smart cars that were once the […]

Car2go, the free-floating car-sharing service owned by Daimler, launched in Chicago this week—the company’s 25th market globally. The car-sharing company, which lets customers rent out vehicles on a short-term basis, has been steadily expanding in the past several years, adding to and changing up its fleet beyond the diminutive Smart cars that were once the lone option for customers.

This launch stands out because it’s the first time in four years that car2go has added a U.S. city to its ranks. The last time car2go added a U.S. city was New York in 2014.

The car sharing service has more than 3.3 million members worldwide, of which about 1 million in the U.S. and Canada—a 25 percent growth over the prior year, according to the company. Today, the car share service offers Mercedes-Benz CLA and GLA as well as the two-door Smartfortwo vehicles.

Daimler was one of the first automakers to get into the car-sharing business. And others have followed, some of which have announced plans just in the past few months. In 2016, BMW’s ReachNow re-launched in North America and GM started Maven, which recently expanded its offerings to a peer-to-peer car-sharing service in Chicago, Detroit, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. VW Group announced in July it will launch a car-sharing service that uses only electric vehicles in Germany next year with plans to expand to other major cities in Europe, North America, and Asia beginning in 2020. Volvo and Renault have also announced plans for a car-sharing service.

This automaker-jumps-into-car-sharing-story is a indicative of a bigger trend within an auto industry grappling with how to earn money beyond the traditional business of building and selling cars. And this period of transition and experimentation isn’t likely to slow down.

If anything expect more tinkering. For instance, Daimler announced Thursday it would break itself into three separate units focused on trucks, its Mercedes-Benz car division, and mobility in a massive restructuring aimed at helping it keep pace with the emergence of automated and electric vehicles.