BMW will in some days roll out to many of its drivers support for Amazon's Alexa Voice Assistant. The fact that BWM does this does not come as a surprise, given that it has long talked about the plans to bring Alexa – and potentially other personal assistants like Cortana and Google Assistant – to their cars. Prior to its official launch in Germany, Austria, the United States and the United Kingdom (with other countries at a later date), I went to Munich to see what uses Alexa as a BMW is about.
As Dieter May, BMW's senior VP of digital products told me earlier this year. The company has long heard that digital assistants in the car must be more than just an "Echo Dot in a cup holder", which means they must be deeply integrated into the experience and the rest of the technology in the car. And that's exactly what BMW has done here ̵
What surprised me most was that we are not just talking about the voice interface here. BMW works directly with the Alexa team at Amazon to integrate visual responses from Alexa. By using the tablet-like screen, you will find the center console of most new BMWs, the service does not only read the answer but also shows more facts or graphs when warranted. That means that Alexa in a BMW is much more like using an Echo Show than a dot (though you obviously will not be able to see any videos on it).
In the demonstration that you saw, in a 2015 BMW X5 that was specifically geared to run Alexa before launch, the screen would be activated when requesting weather information, for example, or for questions that returned information from a Wikipedia entries.
What's cool here is that the BMW team posed these answers with the same design language that also controls the company's other car products. So if you see the weather forecast from Alexa, it just looks like the weather forecast from BMW's own Connected Drive system. The only difference is the "Alexa" name in the top left of the screen.
All this sounds easy, but I'm sure it took a good deal with Amazon to build such a system, especially because it's an important part of this integration that's quite unique. The questions, as you start by pressing the regular "talk" button in your car (in newer models, the Alexa wake word feature will also work) will be sent to BMW's servers first before they go to Amazon. BMW wants to keep control of the data and ensure the user's privacy so that this proxy is added in the middle. That means that there is some extra teams to get answers from Amazon, but the team is working hard to reduce this and for many of the questions we tried during my demo it was already insignificant.
] As the team told me, the first thing that had to be built was a way of switching that could route your questions to the correct service. In addition, the car already has a built-in voice recognition service that lets you set directions in the navigation system, for example. Now it must realize that the speaker said "Alexa" at the beginning of the query and then route it to Alexa service. The team also stressed that we are talking about a very deep integration here. "We're not just running everything through your smartphone or using any plug-and-play solution," said a BMW spokesman.
"You get what you 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 benefits of Alexa's open ecosystem is its skills. Not every skill makes sense in the car's context, and some can be directly distracting, so the team curates a list of skills that you can use in the car.
It's no secret that BMW is also working with Microsoft (and many of its skiing services run on Azure). BMW claims that Alexa and Cortana have different strengths, although Cortana is about productivity and a connection to Office 365, for example. It's easy to imagine a future where you can call both Alexa and Cortana from your car – and it's for sure why BMW built its own system for directing voice commands and why it wants control over this process.
BMW tells me that it will look at how users will use the new service and adjust it accordingly. Because of the functionality of the cloud, updates are obviously simple and the team can quickly release new features – just like any other software company.