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Alexa, Take the Wheel: Ford Models to Put Amazon in Driver Seat

  • Keith Naughton and Spencer Soper
  • January 10 2017, 6:30am EST

(Bloomberg) -- Shopping from the steering wheel will become possible this year as Ford Motor Co. begins taking Inc.’s Alexa digital assistant along for the ride.

The second largest U.S. automaker said it will begin offering “Alexa in the car” this summer on vehicles equipped with its Sync 3 infotainment system. An automotive version of Amazon’s popular voice-activated Echo assistant, Alexa in the car will let drivers order items on Amazon, listen to audio books, play music, check news, search for restaurants and get directions. The driver just has to push a button on the steering wheel and say, “Alexa,” followed by a command such as “find an Italian restaurant.”

Amazon is eager to form alliances with automakers and also is working with BMW to integrate Alexa into its luxury cars. The dashboard has become a hotly contested node on the Internet of Things, as automakers and tech giants tussle to control revenue that will likely flow from more connected and autonomous cars. Apple Inc.’s CarPlay and Alphabet Inc.’s Android Auto -- simplified dashboard versions of their smartphone controls -- are slowly appearing in car cockpits.

“Voice is the future and this is particularly true in cars,” Steve Rabuchin, vice president of Amazon Alexa, said in a statement at CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show. “The ability to use your voice to control your smart home, access entertainment, manage to-do lists and more makes for an extraordinary driving experience.”

Amazon introduced Alexa with the Echo speaker in 2014 as an intelligent home assistant that responds to utterances such as “re-order paper towels,” “play Kanye” and “turn on the lights.”

The product was a surprise hit and Amazon doubled-down last March by introducing new versions, including the Echo Dot, a hockey puck-sized device that featured the skills of the original Echo but for $50, less than one-third the $180 price. With the help of some discounting, both sold out before this Christmas.

Partnering with Ford means Amazon can spread Alexa wider and develop more use cases. Ford sold 2.6 million cars and trucks in the U.S. last year, controlling 14.8 percent of the auto market.

“Ford and Amazon are aligned around a vision that your voice should be the primary way to interface with your favorite devices and services,” Don Butler, Ford’s executive director of connected vehicles, said in the statement.

The first Alexa applications will show up later this month in Ford’s Focus electric car and its two plug-in hybrids, the Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi. Those cars will be equipped with an “Alexa at home” app that enables drivers from their couch to start their cars, lock and unlock the doors and check driving range and how much charge is left in the battery.

From inside their home, a driver will say, “Alexa, ask MyFord Mobile to start my car.” Alexa will respond: “Sending start command to your car.”

Amazon has been partnering with prominent brands to rapidly expand Alexa’s reach. Echo users can order a pizza from Domino’s or check their balances on a Capital One credit card.

In December, Wynn Las Vegas and Amazon announced plans to equip all 4,748 rooms in the resort with the Echo, enabling guests to control lights, room temperature, drapery and televisions via voice commands.

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