Voice controls keep you safer when driving. But many vehicles either have hilariously awful voice controls or nothing at all. Amazon wants to solve that with the new Echo Auto. Does it achieve that goal? Mostly. But it needs work.
Needing a Solution for Dumb Cars
I drive a 2010 Toyota Prius, and its voice command system is the worst. To make a phone call by voice, I have to press a button, listen to a series of command options, respond, and repeat no less than three times. Half the time it fails, and I have to start over. It takes so long I don’t bother.
To get around that, I bought a Roav Viva nearly two years ago. It promises more natural voice commands through Alexa that work quickly. Sure, I can use my phone’s built-in Google Assistant, but when I tried to do that, my phone’s microphones couldn’t hear me well enough. The Roav Viva works well, but it isn’t seamless. It misses out on some features like Spotify integration and proper followup. Anytime the Viva asks, “Did you say Call John?” it completely fails to listen to my response.
The Echo Auto is supposed to be different. This product, currently sold by invitation only, comes directly from Amazon . So unlike the Roav Viva, it won’t need a bridge app to connect the device to the Alexa app. And mostly it’s better. But in some places, it’s a step back from the Viva.
The Physical Setup Is a Bundle of Bad Choices
My absolute favorite thing about the Roav Viva is that it looks like a car charger. You plug it into your cigarette lighter, and it includes two USB ports for charging your phone and other devices. You forget it’s a physical object in your car.
I wish Amazon had stolen that concept, but it didn’t. Instead, what the company came up with is a rectangular box about the size of a Nintendo Joy-Con. Overall it’s a pretty boring design. The top has two buttons, one for mute and one to prompt the Echo to listen to you. The right side sports a MicroUSB port for power and a headphone jack.
Included is the car charger (with two USB ports), a USB cord, and a 3.5 mm audio cable. To get set up, you connect the Echo Auto to your phone, and then the phone to your car. If you have Bluetooth in your car, use that, otherwise, use an Aux jack. If you have neither, you can’t use the Echo Auto. That mirrors the Roav Viva exactly.
Once everything is connected, you have to put the device somewhere. Amazon includes a vent clip that magnetically holds the Echo Auto; although it technically fits my car’s vents, it prevents them from moving or aiming in a sensible direction. So the next best option is to set the Echo Auto on the dash and hope it doesn’t slide around.
That leaves me in an awkward position. I have a power cord dangling in the way and a device that might fly away. Whether I use the mount or not, when I leave the car, I feel like I should hide the thing. I don’t feel the need to hide the Roav Viva because who’s going to steal a car charger?
My car includes a handy storage spot underneath the cigarette lighter port, so I tried keeping it there while driving. Unfortunately, it couldn’t hear me, so back to the dash it went. I was surprised by that, as the Roav Viva could hear me from the same location (although it has plenty of false positives).
Is This Thing On?
My frustration didn’t end there. Amazon doesn’t make it clear when your Echo Auto is ready to go. When you turn your car on, you hear a power-on chime, but you never get a connection confirmation.
The Echo Auto uses your phone for internet, so until they pair it won’t work. But you won’t know if it failed to connect until you try to use it. By the time you realize, you’re on the road. Which means either pulling over or trying to troubleshoot the issue while driving. The latter option defeats the point of hands-free driving entirely, not to mention the safety issues involved. I appreciate that the Roav Viva speaks a confirmation phrase when its paired and ready, and I wish the Echo Auto did, too.
A Seamless Experience
That’s a lot of complaining about the physical makeup and setup of the device, I know. But here’s the good news. Once you get past all that, it works really well. The Echo Auto hears me every time I speak the wake word. And just as importantly, in every case, it responds correctly to my command. I haven’t experienced any false positives either. And in general, using the Echo Auto is quicker than using the Roav Viva.
And for that, you get (nearly) a full Echo in your car. That means Spotify works, smarthome commands work, you can ask for trivia or the weather. And Amazon implemented car-friendly options.
When I say “Call John Mobile,” it just works, and the phone call starts. But even better, I can say, “Get me directions to the closest Taco Bell.” After a quick confirmation, my phone opens Google Maps and starts directing me to Taco Bell. I can even say, “Stop the directions” if I change my mind, and Alexa pauses the navigation on Google Maps. If you prefer, you can use Waze or Apple Maps.
And since it’s an Echo, I can control my smarthome devices. If I can’t remember if I locked the front door, I can ask my Echo Auto. If the door is unlocked, I can tell the Echo Auto to lock it. Am I arriving home late? That’s OK; I can tell the Echo to turn on the porch light, so I can see. And if I have a trunk full of groceries, I can use the Echo Auto to announce to the rest of the house to come help. It’s nice having the car as an extension of my smarthome.
Compared to other Amazon Echo devices, the Echo Auto misses out on one feature: You can’t change the wake word. That’s a shame, but not a dealbreaker.
Should You Get One?
The Echo Auto is an odd proposition. If you already have a voice nav system you like or are satisfied using your phone as one, then you can skip this entirely. It won’t add anything you don’t already have.
If you have a dumb car without voice nav or with terrible voice nav, it’s a more tantalizing proposition. But it’s still a bit of a mixed bag. Right now, it’s $25 by invitation only; eventually, when sales open up to everyone, it will be $50. That’s more expensive than the Roav Viva, a device that performs a similar function.
And there’s the rub. I like the hardware of the Roav Viva more than I do the Echo Auto. By far. It’s more convenient, it feels safer to have in the car, and it even adds two USB ports for charging.
On the other hand, the Echo Auto performs better than the Roav Viva. I get frequent false positives with the Viva but didn’t with the Echo Auto. The commands work better, and more quickly, and I can control Spotify with Echo Auto.
If it only looked like the Roav Viva, I’d recommend it without hesitation. But it doesn’t. If you don’t mind your Echo Auto sticking out when you leave the car, or you don’t mind hiding it, then the Echo Auto is a good device. If the vent mount fits your car’s vents (you can check here), then it’s even better.
But the inconvenience of the setup is still something you should think about before asking for an invite to purchase. The Echo Auto works as intended, but the improvement I want calls for all new hardware.
Here’s What We Like
- Remarkable voice accuracy
- Easy to set up
- Controls your smarthome
And What We Don't
- Vent mount won't fit all cars
- You might want to hide it
- It would be better as a car charger