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Voice Control Behind the Wheel

Connected car features create a new auto-home network 

Ford Focus with Alexa featured in dashboard

Courtesy of Ford Media Center

Mobile apps and smart devices make it easier than ever before to control your world from your driver's seat. Whether you want to get the engine running remotely, run your favorite apps from the road or open the garage door before your commute is over, there are new ways to use voice commands to manage your life from your car — and, in some cases, also manage your car from your home.

'Alexa, start my car'

Thanks to integration with Amazon’s Alexa, there’s no need to be near your car to get it unlocked and ready to drive. Many newer cars from major manufacturers, including Ford, Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai, are compatible with Alexa, Amazon’s voice-controlled assistant that communicates through an Echo speaker.

If you have an Alexa-integrated car and an Echo at home, enabling your automaker’s Connected Car Alexa skill will let you control your vehicle from your kitchen table (or anywhere you like to keep your Echo) using voice commands. After you’ve set it up, you can ask Alexa to start or stop the engine and to lock or unlock doors without leaving the house. For instance: “Alexa, ask Chevrolet to start my car,” or, “Alexa, tell FordPass to lock my vehicle.”

Depending on your manufacturer, you might also be able to ask Alexa about other vehicle information, such as tire pressure and mileage, or to control your lights, trunk, and heating and cooling systems from afar — an especially useful option during extreme weather.  

If your car is not Alexa-compatible, or you don’t want to use an Echo at home, you can opt for a smartphone-based system like Viper SmartStart or DroneMobile instead. These remote-start systems pair an in-car module (you’ll need to get this professionally installed) with a smartphone app, which you can use to control your car from afar. Because the module communicates with your phone, not a smart speaker, you don’t need to be home to activate it. If you have your phone, virtually any location — the office, the gym, or the airport— can become your command center. 

Appleplay display on dashboard

 RZ_Images / Alamy Stock Photo

In-car connections

Once you’re in the car, smart technology offers seamless access to entertainment, navigation and more. Hundreds of newer car models support Android Auto and Apple Carplay, which are vehicle-friendly versions of the Android and Apple smartphone interfaces. These systems use your smartphone to sync up to your car’s infotainment center and let you use voice and touch to access mobile apps on your in-car screen while driving.

You won’t get access to all of your smartphone apps, but the basics — maps, music and messaging — are covered with both systems, along with access to news, podcasts and audiobooks. If your car is compatible (complete lists can be found on the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay sites), simply connect your phone with a USB to load the interface on your car’s display system. Android users will need to download the Auto app on their phones prior to plugging in, while Carplay is automatically included on iPhones 5 and up.

If you’re a smartphone user but your car doesn’t support Android Auto or Apple Carplay, you can retrofit it with an aftermarket system. These cost several hundred dollars upfront, but that’s far less than upgrading to a new vehicle.

What about in-car Alexa? Amazon announced this fall that a car-specific Alexa speaker, Echo Auto, will soon be available. In the meantime, there’s no reason why you can’t connect an existing Echo device directly to your car. Plug the speaker into a USB port or the cigarette lighter for power, connect it to WiFi using either your car’s internet network (if it has one) or your phone’s mobile hotspot, and then pair it with your car’s speaker system using either Bluetooth or an auxiliary cable. This will allow you to access all of Alexa’s skills, such as making song requests, compiling a to-do list, or asking for the latest news headlines, on the go.       

If you don’t want to install an Echo speaker directly, consider an Alexa add-on device as an alternative. These small, mounted devices pair with your phone’s data connection and car speakers to give you access to Alexa skills as well as navigation instructions. Popular models include the Garmin Speak and Roav Viva.

Garmin Speak

Garmin Speak / Courtesy of Garmin

Home control from the road

It’s also possible to control an array of at-home smart gadgets, from sprinkler systems and security cameras to light switches and thermostats, from behind the wheel — just make sure that your smart-home appliances are compatible with the system you’ll be using in your car.

If your gadgets are Alexa-compatible, you can use a car-mounted Echo speaker or add-on device to control them while you drive. Android Auto is integrated with Google Assistant, which means that any home gadgets you control with a Google Home speaker can also be controlled from an Android Auto-enabled car. Similarly, Apple Carplay users can talk to Siri to control their Apple Homekit devices remotely. (Carplay doesn’t support the Homekit app, called Home, on its interface, however, so you’ll only be able to communicate through Siri commands.)

And remember, you don’t need to have a specific action in mind: You can always ask Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri for a simple status update, like whether the garage door is closed, what temperature your bedroom is, or just to make sure the front door is locked behind you.               

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