Alibaba Extends Tmall Genie with a New In-Car Smart Speaker Partnership with Automakers Audi, Honda, and Renault

  • Alibaba announced new agreements at CES Asia with Audi, Honda, and Renault to enable integration between the Tmall Genie Auto in-car smart speaker designed for placement in a cupholder and the automaker’s infotainment systems. It appears to be similar to a recent announcement with Volkswagen.
  • This is a device-based solution and should not be confused with Tmall Genie solutions embedded within car infortainment systems announce previously by Volvo and BMW.
  • At launch, the solutions will only available in China. Renault is even launching a special model edition to highlight the Tmall Genie integration.
  • Drivers will be able to use the in-car voice assistant to access news, entertainment, weather, navigation, shopping, smart home and other features commonly accessed through smart speakers.

Alibaba announced at CES Asia this past week that Tmall Genie Auto will soon be available to Chinese drivers of cars from Audi, Honda, and Renault. Tmall Genie is Alibaba’s voice assistant that was first launched as part of a smart speaker in July 2017. Tmall Genie Auto was developed in Alibaba AI Labs and is the smart speaker designed to fit in a cup holder and connect with a car’s dashboard infotainment system. Volvo announced the adoption of Tmall Genie embedded into its infotainment system in 2018 and at CES 2019 in January, Alibaba demonstrated that solution along with announcing a new partnership with BMW.

I was able to get a demonstration of the Volvo solution at CES Las Vegas earlier this year, and there is a clear focus on news, entertainment, and shopping. Entertainment and news offer obvious benefits to drivers and the shopping experience is designed to be integrated into the commute where you can order for delivery or to pick up purchases at a store. It is also integrated with smart home technologies that can execute a routine when you arrive home such as turning on the lights, opening the blinds and starting a song. Below is a video a demonstration captured by Alizila’s managing editor Tom Brennan.

The Battle for the Car – Embedded and After Market

Voice Assistant providers in the U.S. and Europe have been battling fiercely for a position in the car. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto offer projection solutions which simply display a subset of smartphone features for drivers. Amazon, Google, and SoundHound, have been battling to join Nuance as an embedded solution within car dashboards and, lacking a smartphone platform, this latter strategy is aligned with Alibaba’s approach. However, not every automaker is ready to embed the solution into the infotainment system and thus the device-based approach announced at CES Asia.

Amazon has also followed this path with the previously announced Echo Auto and third-party devices from Anker and Garmin. Google also received some help in this area from Anker recently. However, those devices simply rely on Bluetooth connectivity and there are no specific integration points with the infotainment system other than as a pass-through to the sound system. The Tmall Genie Auto announcement makes it sound like there will be a richer integration into the infotainment system, but few details were shared this past week. Regardless, it is likely to be a less robust driving experience integration that what you see in the video demonstration above from Volvo.

The Next Ambient Computing Environment

The car is so important to voice assistant providers because it is a setting where touch-based devices such as smartphones are not optimal. Ambient voice interactions where the device just hears you and responds were pioneered in the home and the car is the logical extension of that experience as it is the often the first environment consumers enter when leaving home and the last environment they experience before returning. It is also controlled by the consumer. Office and public spaces are other logical locations for voice-interactive ambient computing but are not entirely under the control of the consumer. So, the car is viewed as critical and viewed by many as comparable in importance to the smartphone.

Alibaba has sold more than 10 million smart speakers since 2017, but it trails access points offered by Baidu’s DuerOS which claimed more than 200 million devices with the voice assistant as of January 2019. That doesn’t mean 200 million users as DuerOS is embedded in many smartphones from HTC and Vivo along with some smart appliances. Just because DuerOS is there doesn’t mean users are employing it. However, the widespread OS adoption with the voice assistant aboard does provide Baidu with device reach that Alibaba cannot match today. Integrating Tmall Genie into millions of cars is definitely a step in closing the gap and reinforcing Alibaba’s lead in voice for ambient environments.

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