At a recent Amazon event, the company announced BMW will integrate Alexa into its 2018 models. It’s no secret that Amazon wants to stick Alexa anywhere and everywhere it can, and BMW is just the beginning. The latest company to announce a collaboration with Amazon is Garmin: the wearable and navigation device presented today the new Garmin Speak, a small disk device that installs on your windshield and brings Alexa voice commands into your car.
Describing the Garmin Speak device as “like a disk” is a 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, bright blue LED status light. Inside that circle is an OLED display that will display arrows, symbols, and numbers as it provides audible turn-by-turn directions. The Garmin word comes with a windshield mount, making it a device that can easily be confused for a dash cam with a quick glance.
But the Garmin Speak doesn’t have an outward-facing camera like dash cameras do. Instead, the device is home only to Garmin Speak software and Amazon’s Alexa. As with any Alexa-toting device, you can call Alexa with your voice through Garmin Speak, asking for news, weather, sports, and other updates. You can also use Alexa to ignore or answer 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 expertise comes into play with turn-by-turn directions and location information. Garmin created an “exclusive” Alexa skill accessed 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 work. 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 directions software will automatically find it. Alexa will read directions to you as you drive to the gas station, and the Garmin Speak screen will show you nearby turns and other direction changes.
The Garmin Speak mobile app has a few other uses besides connecting to a new device. You can set up 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 as a limited navigation tool (sans maps), letting you enter an address or location that would be too difficult to say before you start to drive.
Carrying the Garmin Speak device like you would a dash cam technically makes it easier for you to see the display while driving, though you shouldn’t even have to look with Alexa reading you turn-by-turn directions as you drive. drive While the device is meant to reduce your reliance on a smartphone or infotainment screen, Garmin Speak is not a completely stand-alone 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 proper LTE reception.
The collaboration of Garmin and Amazon provides an interesting OS-agnostic solution for voice commands in the car (at least for those who do not already have them through built-in infotainment systems). Garmin doesn’t make smartphones, but it does make wearables. However, none of its wearables can display turn-by-turn directions on their screens, nor does it connect to Alexa or another virtual assistant. Those who use Apple devices first can get audible directions through 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 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 keep drivers’ eyes on the road but also keep them distracted longer than button- or screen-based infotainment systems. This is mainly due to long interaction times, as some AI virtual assistants do not understand all orders correctly the first time or the long waiting time involved in correcting an order that is not understood.
Ars auto editor Jonathan Gitlin found that the best current fix for this kind of problem is an interruptible voice command system, like BMW’s Dragon Drive system. Users should be able to speak on 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 home, and it is unclear how the mics and speakers in Garmin Speak will perform in noisy driving conditions.
The Garmin Word is available today for $149.