At a recent Amazon event, the company announced BMW would integrate Alexa into its 2018 models. It’s no secret that Amazon wants to stick Alexa anywhere and everywhere it can, and BMW is only the beginning. The latest company to announce a collaboration with Amazon is Garmin: the wearable and navigation device manufacturer revealed the new Garmin Speak today, a small disk-like device that installs on your windshield and brings Alexa voice commands into your car.
Describing the Garmin Speak device as “disk-like” is the polite way of drawing a comparison between it and Amazon’s Echo Dot speaker. Essentially, the Garmin Speak is a smaller, 1.5-inch-wide version of the Echo Dot, complete with a circular, glowing blue LED status light. Inside that circle is an OLED display that will show arrows, icons, and numbers as it provides audible turn-by-turn directions. The Garmin Speak comes with a windshield mount, making it a device you could easily confuse for a dash cam with just a quick glance.
But the Garmin Speak does not have the essential outward-facing camera like dash cams do. Instead, the device is solely a home for Garmin Speak software and Amazon’s Alexa. As with any other Alexa-toting device, you can summon Alexa with your voice through the Garmin Speak, asking for news, weather, sports, and other updates. You can also use Alexa to ignore or accept phone calls, and you can also control music search and playback so you can ask to hear a new song, artist, or genre without taking your hands off the wheel or eyes off the road. Alexa’s smart home controls work when you’re in the car as well, so you can ask Alexa to turn on your lights before you pull into your driveway.
Garmin’s knowledge comes into play with turn-by-turn directions and location information. Garmin created an “exclusive” Alexa skill that you access through the Garmin Speak mobile app. You’ll need to download that app to your smartphone to use the Garmin Speak device, but you don’t need the Amazon Alexa app for it to function. Once the device and companion app are paired, you can say, “Alexa, ask Garmin to direct me to the nearest gas station,” and Garmin’s turn-by-turn direction software will be detected. Alexa will then read the directions to you as you drive to the gas station, and the Garmin Speak’s screen will show approaching turns and other directional changes.
The Garmin Speak mobile app has a few other uses aside from pairing to the new device. You can set home, work, and school addresses in the app so you can easily say, “Alexa, ask Garmin to go home,” and you’ll be directed home from wherever you currently are. Garmin Speak also acts like a limited navigation app (sans maps), letting you input an address or location that would be too difficult to say before starting to drive.
Mounting the Garmin Speak device like you would a dash cam technically makes it easier for you to see the display while driving, although you shouldn’t even have to look at it with Alexa reading turn-by-turn directions as you drive. While the device is meant to lessen your dependence on your smartphone or infotainment screen, the Garmin Speak isn’t a totally standalone device. It feeds off of your smartphone’s LTE connection, so without that, you can’t ask Alexa for anything. That means your smartphone needs to be on, in the car with you, and have decent LTE reception.
Garmin and Amazon’s collaboration provides an interesting OS-agnostic solution for in-car voice commands (at least for those who don’t already have them through built-in infotainment systems). Garmin doesn’t make smartphones, but it does make wearables. However, none of its wearables can show turn-by-turn directions on their screens, nor do they connect to Alexa or another virtual assistant. Those who primarily use Apple devices can get audible directions via Apple Maps and Siri and turn-by-turn alerts on their wrists with an Apple Watch. Google has a similar solution for those using Google Maps, Android Wear, and the Google Assistant.
While voice commands are supposed to reduce driver distraction, some studies suggest they do the opposite. According to a recent study commissioned by the AAA Foundation, in-car voice commands kept drivers’ eyes on the road but also kept them distracted longer than button- or screen-based infotainment systems. This is largely due to longer interaction times, as some AI virtual assistants don’t understand all commands correctly the first time or the long wait period involved in correcting a misunderstood command.
Ars’ automotive editor Jonathan Gitlin found that the best current fix for this type of problem is a voice command system that you can interrupt, like BMW’s Dragon Drive system. Users should be able to talk over Alexa in the Garmin Speak device because Alexa in other Amazon devices like the Echo can hear commands over music or other noise. You can also say “Alexa, stop” to prevent the virtual assistant from continuing a command. However, the car is a different environment from the home, and it’s unclear how well the mics and speakers in the Garmin Speak will perform in potentially loud driving situations.
The Garmin Speak is available today for $149.