Amazon.com (AMZN -0.59%) already has an Echo device for your car that will play music, get you directions, place calls, let you listen to audiobooks, and even control your smart home while you're behind the wheel. But do we really need Alexa helping people watch video while driving?
Chipmaker Qualcomm (QCOM 0.49%) plans to showcase how its artificial-intelligence capabilities can enhance the "in-vehicle experience" by allowing drivers the ability to not only call up Amazon Music and to listen to Audible audiobooks while you're driving but also make available Amazon Video and Fire TV programming.
A need for safety first
During the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month, Qualcomm unveiled its Smart Audio Platform for next-generation vehicles, to show how vehicles can deliver an interactive experience for drivers and passengers.
Presumably because Qualcomm's senior vice president of product management, Nakul Duggal, said the chipmaker wanted to "continuously improve and expand the realm of possibilities for in-car experiences while delivering unparalleled safety-conscious solutions," the company suggests that the platform will also limit the ability of dash-mounted infotainment systems from activating while the car is in motion.
My older Ford F-150's infotainment system plays DVDs, for example, but as soon as you move the gear shift out of park, the video cuts out to prevent you from driving and watching a movie at the same time. No doubt Qualcomm's chips offer similar safety features. Drivers are distracted enough as it is.
Bringing AI to the masses
The key to Qualcomm's more advanced chips is that they'll allow more complex systems to be installed in less expensive cars. There's been some form of voice tech in vehicles since IBM introduced voice-controlled navigation into 2005 model year Hondas (NYSE: HMC) in 2004, but in low-end models that have thin profit margins, advanced technologies -- in particular AI capabilities -- are often hard to come by. The Qualcomm release could be among the most advanced yet.
It kicked off the year by introducing its third-generation Snapdragon chip for vehicle cockpits that, by dividing them like its cell-phone chips into entry-level, mid-tier, and high-end platforms, will give automakers the potential to earn additional revenue from services even in its base-model cars.
Qualcomm told Reuters it has a backlog of design wins with auto manufacturers totaling $5.5 billion, 10% more than it had last year. That's an important gain, because it's been battling both Alphabet (GOOG -0.19%) (GOOGL -0.15%) and Apple (AAPL 0.83%), which offer Android Auto and CarPlay, to attract automaker support.
These apps, though, are mostly accessed through a smartphone and supplant a vehicle's native infotainment system, which isn't necessarily bad, as they're often compatible with other apps that are better than those that come built-in, such as Waze, WhatsApp, and Spotify. Qualcomm's chips would obviously be the native system.
Integrating home and work through your car
In Qualcomm's Amazon demo announcement, Amazon's VP of Alexa, Ned Curic, was quoted as saying that Amazon's "vision is for Alexa to be available anywhere customers want to interact with her, whether they're at home, in the office, or on the go."
The "on the go" part is closely linked to two partnerships Amazon recently signed -- one with Telenav, a connected-car and location-based services provider, and the other with HERE Technologies, a voice-first, in-vehicle navigation system. Both will allow drivers better navigation capabilities by having Alexa built into a car's systems from the start. HERE notes that drivers would be able to plan their routes while at work or home and that the data would be synced with their car when they got in.
According to Voicebot.ai, 114 million U.S. adults have tried voice assistants in a car, and 77 million do so monthly, surpassed only by those who use a smartphone to access one. The car is a natural place for using voice assistants like Alexa, since any electronic communications a driver has are supposed to be hands-free.
By expanding it to other capabilities beyond simply navigation, Qualcomm seeks to usher in the full suite of Alexa-enabled services and apps and break the need for an external accessory. It also promises to put voice assistants into millions of vehicles, which might just help it drive to the forefront of the industry.
Check out the latest Qualcomm earnings call transcript.