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Amazon launches Alexa smartphone app features for car commuters

In a blog post this morning, Amazon unveiled two new car-focused features for its Alexa voice assistant. Auto Mode turns the Alexa smartphone app into a responsive, driver-friendly display, while Start My Commute provides on-demand weather, traffic updates, and choice of entertainment. Auto Mode will be rolling out on iOS and Android customers in the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, India, Italy, Spain, UK, Australia, and New Zealand in the coming weeks while Start My Commute will initially only be available in the U.S. when it launches in the same time frame.

The new capabilities come as car sales skyrocket during the pandemic. As the New York Times reports, buyers are snatching up used vehicles as second or third cars so they can avoid trains, buses, taxis, and other potentially high-risk infection vectors. Others are purchasing used rather than new to save cash in an uncertain economy. In any case, in June, franchised car dealers sold 1.2 million used cars and trucks, according to Edmunds — up 22% from a year earlier.

Amazon says that Auto Mode was designed to help drivers stay focused on the road with visuals, large touch targets, and intuitive shortcuts for the most common Alexa actions used in vehicles like navigating to saved locations, placing calls, and playing recent songs. The Auto Mode home screen provides one-touch access to frequent actions, with shortcuts to play and pause the current media source, navigate to home or work, and to make a call.

Auto Mode’s Navigate screen provides quick access to locations stored in the Alexa app. Choosing a destination will open the preferred navigation app and begin guidance; users can switch back to the Alexa app using their voice by asking “Alexa, go back to the Alexa app.” Alternatively, they can request Alexa to help you find someplace new. (e.g., “Alexa, find nearby coffee shops”). As Alexa reads back the responses, Auto Mode displays a simplified list showing only the most relevant information.

The Communicate screen allows a user to place a call, tap Alexa’s Drop In mode, or make announcements to devices to which the user has access. Users can ask Alexa to initiate the action or touch their selection and Auto Mode will provide a list of all contacts and devices. For example, if they want their family know they’re headed home, they can say “Alexa, announce: I am on my way home.”

Lastly, there’s the Play screen, which shows the most current media played using any Alexa device and a button to play or pause, along with a list of recently played media. Selecting any of the items in the list starts playing the media and brings up the Now Playing screen, which provides additional controls specific to the type of media being played and the service used.

As for Alexa’s new Featured Commute routine, it’s launched by saying “Alexa, start my commute,” and it cues up the weather, traffic updates, and more. Alexa will ask if you’d like to listen to music or an audiobook, catch up on your daily news, or play a car-friendly game. Once the routine is enabled, users have the option to customize it further through the Routines section in the Alexa app.

Along with Echo Auto, Amazon’s designed-for-vehicles Echo device, Auto Mode and Featured Commute are a part of Amazon’s continued quest to dominate the car voice platform market. In September, in partnership with ExxonMobil and fintech provider Fiserv, Amazon debuted an Alexa feature that lets users pay for gas with a voice command. And during the Consumer Electronics Show, the company inked deals with Lamborghini and Rivian to integrate Alexa into vehicles to let owners control in-car features like HVAC, windows, opening, and closing the trunk.

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