The Amazon Echo Auto (2nd generation) is smaller but not smarter

Amazon’s second-generation Echo Auto is a tiny Echo for your car’s dashboard. It has good microphones, is easy to install and store away when you’re parked, and offers an easy way to add hands-free music playback to your car stereo when Bluetooth is missing. But it’s not as intelligent as your smartphone’s built-in assistant, and unless you already have an ecosystem of Amazon smart home devices, it doesn’t make sense for most people, myself included.

Simply put, the Echo Auto is a $54.99 microphone that mounts on your dash and lets you use Alexa voice commands on the go. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth and then to your car stereo for playback either via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm cable connection. Your car doesn’t need any smarts to function, just a old fashioned cigarette lighter/socket and an AUX input for your stereo.

The second-gen Echo Auto’s mic end is even smaller than the last (2.1 x 0.9 inches versus 3.3 x 1.9 inches, which was itself much smaller than the Echo speakers and pucks, designed for the home). It comes with a self-adhesive magnetic mount that can be attached to your car’s dashboard. There’s not a lot of free space on my dash, and I was a little worried it would sit too close to the car radio’s volume knob. But it’s deceptively small, and I found a good spot for it, away from any knobs or buttons.

The Echo Auto is powered by your car’s USB port (or 12V power adapter). Your car needs to be running to use Echo Auto, and once it’s on you can connect it to your phone (and the Alexa app) via Bluetooth. Then use either Bluetooth or the 3.5mm jack on the Echo’s breakout box to connect to your car stereo. All of this can be done in about five minutes, provided you have an Amazon account and the Alexa app on your phone.

I’ve had no problems with it, and I like that I can just tuck the breakout box and cables into the little compartment under my dash so things don’t get in the way. Importantly, the whole thing can be unplugged, removed from the mount and stowed in the center console when I leave my car – and plugged back in just as quickly. I try not to leave anything visible in my car to tempt a break-in, so it would have been a non-starter if I always had something valuable looking attached to my dash.

My experience with Alexa wasn’t quite as smooth. It seems to have gotten smarter since my colleague Sean Hollister reviewed the first-gen Echo Auto. Asking to find nearby gas stations and coffee shops and look up opening times usually worked well. But for anything that requires interaction with the phone, like making calls and using navigation, you’re limited by what the Alexa app can do on your phone, and you’ll quickly hit those limitations.

I can’t just have Alexa text everyone in my contact list – they need to have Alexa Messaging enabled. You can see who opted in by scrolling through your contacts in the Alexa app. As it stands, maybe a third of my contacts have the feature enabled. I also have an unusually large number of current and former Amazon employees around me (disclosure: I used to work at DPReview, a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon), so take that with caution.

Alexa can also open Apple Maps with a specific destination via voice command, but I still have to tap a button in the app to start or stop navigation. Siri, on the other hand, can do these things without any additional action on my part.

The Echo Auto wants to default to Amazon services, which I don’t use many of. Even with Spotify set as my default streaming service, I had to ask Alexa a few times to get it A Charlie Brown Christmas playing there instead of Amazon Music. Also, new events will be added to your “Alexa Calendar” by default, even if you already have another calendar linked to your account. Do I want this Alexa calendar? Do I even know where it is? No and no. You can easily change the default to a Google, Microsoft, or Apple calendar, but it’s one more thing to mess around with to get set up the way I want it.

I can’t just have Alexa text everyone in my contact list – they need to have Alexa Messaging enabled

As for other Alexa services, the Skills library looks pretty empty. I was looking for a Starbucks reordering skill that would come in handy (disclosure: I live in Seattle and have a habit). It’s no longer available, and the only Starbucks Alexa Skill available is something that tells you which Starbucks coffee roast is best for you based on answers to a few questions. This is useless. Amazon has recently made some big cuts to its devices and Alexa Teams, so I don’t feel good about the long-term prospects of a more helpful Starbucks skill (or any other) coming back in the future.

Of course, Alexa works best in the Amazon ecosystem. But I’m not convinced I need that in my car. There’s likely a case for the Echo Auto if you have a lot of Alexa-enabled smart home devices. I don’t have one, and I’m not sure I’d care to turn on my living room lights by talking to a device in my car. Even if I did, my phone’s voice assistant can already do that.

Echo auto mic module with fingertip mute button.

I order a lot of my groceries from Amazon Fresh, which integrates pretty well with Alexa’s grocery list feature. Being able to add something to my next grocery order if it occurs to me while driving is a legitimate use case for me, so Echo Auto would come in handy in those cases. But that’s still rare, and there aren’t enough other useful things Alexa could do for me to make me want a whole extra device in my car. If I ever pull myself together and start using Reminders on my iPhone, I could just ask Siri to remind me that I need to buy cat food later. It can’t put Fancy Feast in my Amazon cart for me, but I can live with that.

The strength of the Echo Auto remains its very good microphones. This version has five instead of eight and relies more on “improved algorithms” to understand voice commands. Even with fewer mics, it’s still very good. It can hear me speak at a normal volume, even with the heating and fans running at full blast. It has a more difficult time driving on the freeway with the window down, but it can hear me better than I would expect without having to speak much.

Understanding simple questions and commands is what Echo Auto does best, and even then it sometimes fails spectacularly. I got into a roaring battle with this when I asked for the hours of operation of Burien Press, a coffee shop in Burien, Washington, which it correctly identified on the first try a day earlier. Here’s a list of things Alexa thought I said as I got increasingly impatient:

  • variant press
  • Fury Crest
  • Purion press
  • Darien Press in Marion Washington
Close-up of a hand holding the Echo Auto, a small black device about 1 inch wide and 2 inches long.  It has a small button and an indicator LED and a cable leading down from it.  The photo was taken inside a car and the center dashboard/infotainment area is blurred in the background.

The Echo Auto is a delicate piece of hardware that doesn’t make much practical sense. Perhaps the best use is for someone with an older car without bluetooth but with an aux input. If so, it’s an easy way to add hands-free music playback and easy navigation to your car’s built-in speakers. Still, $55 is too high for it — $30 feels right for something like this, and Bluetooth-to-aux adapters already exist. That $55 is a little easier to justify if you have Amazon smart home products, but I think the overlap in the Venn diagram of “Has a very old car” and “Has a lot of Amazon smart home products” products” is quite low. Additionally, the long-term prospects for Alexa to get more and better third-party capabilities don’t look good.

What really kills the Echo Auto’s appeal is the device you already own: your smartphone. If you put a simple mount in your car, put your phone in it, and just ask your phone’s built-in assistant to navigate to Starbucks, text, or play something on Spotify, you’ll have better luck. From the looks of it, Alexa isn’t all that smart from home.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verand

a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin [&>a]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-white md:text-30″>Consent to Continue: Amazon Echo Auto (2nd Generation)

Every smart device now requires you to agree to a set of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that nobody really reads. It is impossible for us to read and analyze each and every one of these agreements. But we’ll start counting exactly how many times you have to click “Agree” to use devices when we review them, since these are agreements most people can’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.

To use Amazon Echo Auto, you must download the Alexa app for iOS or Android. An Amazon account is required to sign up. If you sign up for one of these accounts, you must agree to their terms of service.

By setting up the device in the app, you “agree to the Amazon Terms of Service and all terms listed here.” You can search the documentation at this link, but below we have listed the 13 terms that you must agree to:

final balance: 14 binding agreements.

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