Can I get a digital assistant like Amazon Alexa for my used car?

A reader has recently driven a new car with voice control and wants to know whether there's an aftermarket digital assistant that can be fitted to his older car...

Chris digital assistant

Having recently driven a hire car with voice control for the sat-nav and phone, I’ve realised how useful this feature is for letting the driver do things while on the move without becoming too distracted.

I’d really like to get a similar system for my 2014 Ford Fiesta. Are there any aftermarket systems I could have fitted to the car? 

James Mackie

What Car? says… 

Digital assistants for the home, such as Amazon Alexa, Apple HomePod and Google Home, have been around for a couple of years, and higher-end new cars are now starting to be fitted with voice-controlled virtual assistants. For example, the latest Mercedes-Benz A-Class has Hey Mercedes, which lets you ask the car for all sorts of information, such as the nearest free parking space or Italian restaurant.

Chris digital assistant

We know of only one aftermarket digital assistant device for cars, though. It’s called Chris and is produced by German Autolabs. Chris doesn't have its own data connection, so it needs to be connected to a smartphone via Bluetooth. It was launched earlier this year and at present is compatible only with Android phones, although a version for Apple iPhones is due to go on sale later this year. 

The device is a round 2.1-inch LCD colour screen that attaches to the car's dashboard or windscreen. The driver can use it hands-free to get sat-nav directions, make and take phone calls and send text and WhatsApp messages. 

It can also be used to play music from your phone; at present it’s not able to connect to the car’s stereo, so you have to listen through its tiny speakers, but the maker says this functionality will be available soon.

As well as responding to voice controls, you can do three hand gestures to control Chris: a swipe, a high-five and a push-pull. 

Chris digital assistant

Chris is expensive, at £299, but there's no additional subscription fee and German Autolabs promises to supply software updates to buyers.  

Alternatively, you could replace your car’s stereo with an aftermarket touchscreen system that features Android Auto and/or Apple CarPlay, both of which enable you to use your smartphone via touch or voice control. This will provide a more integrated solution. 

The cheapest aftermarket stereos with Apple CarPlay we’ve seen on sale cost around £130, but they will require fitting, which might prove difficult. 

What is Apple CarPlay? 

Apple CarPlay was released in 2014. It allows drivers to access the phone, messaging, audio and navigation features of their iPhones from their car, without taking their hands off the steering wheel.

With fines for using your phone while at the wheel increasing, more drivers are connecting their phones to cars using Apple CarPlay, or the alternative Android Auto or MirrorLink systems.

What is Apple CarPlay?

Apple CarPlay is a system that allows you to view content from your iPhone on your car’s infotainment screen. It also means you can make calls, listen to music, use sat-nav and dictate text messages on your iPhone without taking your hands off the steering wheel.

Users connect their iPhone to the car either by using a USB port or via a Bluetooth connection.

As well as Apple’s own phone, messaging, iTunes and maps apps, third-party apps including Spotify, Audible and Stitcher are currently supported, with that list expected to grow as the technology develops.

Drivers control Apple CarPlay in the same way as they would the car’s own infotainment system, by using buttons, rotary dials and a touchscreen if fitted. As well as this, Apple’s Siri service allows drivers to issue voice commands, including dictating messages to be sent via the iPhone. The system can also read incoming messages.

Which cars support Apple CarPlay?

Apple CarPlay is available on more than 200 different car models from 40 brands including Audi, BMW, Citroën, Fiat, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar, Kia, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Peugeot, Porsche, Renault, Seat, Skoda, Toyota, Vauxhall Volkswagen and Volvo.

Among the cars which feature Apple CarPlay functionality are What Car? Car of the Year winners including the Volvo XC40 and Skoda Karoq . A full list of the cars which support Apple CarPlay can be found here.

What is Apple CarPlay?

Can I add Apple CarPlay to an older car?

Yes, you can buy aftermarket units that will allow you to enjoy Apple CarPlay functionality in an older vehicle. Suppliers including Alpine, Kenwood and Pioneer all sell units, with prices starting from around £130, but you may also need to budget in getting a retailer or professional to fit these for you.

Will my phone support Apple CarPlay?

Apple CarPlay is available on any iPhone which comes with a ‘lightning’ charging cable. That means the following phones can use the service:

  • iPhone SE
  • iPhone 5
  • iPhone 5C
  • iPhone 5S
  • iPhone 6
  • iPhone 6 Plus
  • iPhone 6S
  • iPhone 6S Plus
  • iPhone 7
  • iPhone 7 Plus
  • iPhone 8
  • iPhone 8 Plus
  • iPhone X

Expect future versions of the iPhone to support Apple CarPlay, too. To use Apple CarPlay, your iPhone must be running the iOS 7 operation system or newer.

How do I start Apple CarPlay?

To use Apple CarPlay, connect your lightning charging cable to your phone, and then into a USB port on your car. A message should appear asking if you want to start Apple CarPlay. Selecting 'Yes' will then start the service.

Our video tutorial showcases many of the features of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Are there any alternatives?

There are three main systems for connecting mobile phones to cars. Apple CarPlay is perhaps the most well known, but owners of phones using the Android operating system have a similar service in the form of Android Auto.

Android Auto offers very similar functionality to Apple CarPlay, including navigation, audio and messaging elements, and was launched in 2014. A third service, MirrorLink, is also offered for Android smartphones and does not currently support iPhones.

Next: What cars are compatible with Apple CarPlay? >

Or read: What is Android Auto?

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