Amazon’s Alexa Gets Biggest Auto Rollout in Six-Year Ford Deal

An Amazon.com Inc. Echo Plus device is displayed during an unveiling event at the company's headquarters in Seattle, Washington, U.S. (Photographer: Chloe Collyer/Bloomberg)

Amazon’s Alexa Gets Biggest Auto Rollout in Six-Year Ford Deal

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Amazon.com Inc. is deepening its ties with Ford Motor Co. in a deal that will integrate Alexa into the entertainment system of F-150 trucks and other models.

Amazon’s digital assistant will roll out to about 700,000 Ford vehicles this year, including new and recent models of the pickup, as well as the Bronco and the electric Mustang Mach-E in the U.S. and Canada. New and existing vehicles powered by Ford’s SYNC-4 in-car software will also offer drivers the option of invoking Alexa hands-free.

“It’s going to grow to millions really quickly,” said Alex Purdy, who leads business operations for Ford’s Enterprise Connectivity group.

For Amazon, the six-year deal is the broadest single rollout of Alexa in vehicles to date, a rare instance of an automaker integrating the voice-activated software natively. That means drivers can access Alexa directly from the dash entertainment system without using a phone, downloading an app, or pressing a push-to-talk button. The companies declined to disclose financial terms of the agreement, which builds on a commercial deal announced in 2017.

“It’s very expansive,” Dave Limp, an Amazon senior vice president who leads the company’s devices and services group, said of the deal. “Ford has been working for the past couple of years to enable their cars to have this hands-free experience. We were able to take advantage of it.”

Ford will provide drivers with free internet connectivity that enables Alexa features, such as asking for directions and messaging -- but not music streaming -- for three years. After that they’ll likely need to pay for a data or software plan, which Ford hasn’t detailed yet.

The dashboard has become prized real estate for automakers and tech giants eager to extend their reach. Despite its leading position in home digital assistants thanks to Alexa and the Echo smart speaker, Amazon has been playing catchup on the road. Many drivers prefer to link the phone they carry to their vehicle, putting Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google in a commanding position thanks to their domination of the smartphone market.

Ford, which has been collaborating with software giants since a landmark deal with Microsoft Corp. some 14 years ago, is hedging its bets these days. In addition to Alexa, Ford vehicles also support Google and Apple voice software. The automaker in February announced a six-year deal to use Google’s cloud-computing services; in 2023 Ford will start using Google’s Android operating system to power its dashboard infotainment screens.

Under Chief Executive Officer Jim Farley, Ford is trying to move from selling cars to customers one-at-a-time, to a purveyor of services for the driver and passengers. That business model is made possible by over-the-air software updates to things like the entertainment system and maintenance alerts, tools that are just beginning to arrive in Ford vehicles.

Not only will the technology enable new paid services, it could also save drivers costly trips to the dealer by providing over-the-air software fixes and predictive maintenance, Purdy said.

“We think it’s big dollars,” he said. “We also think our customers are asking for it.”

Amazon earlier this year started letting carmakers use Alexa’s building blocks to create their own software, a challenge to Cerence Inc., the leading builder of custom voice software for auto companies including Ford. As part of the deal announced Thursday, Ford and Amazon will set up a joint team to work on custom Alexa applications for commercial fleet operators.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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