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Alexa, can I park here?

Pietro Vismara
Feb 5, 2019 · 3 min read

At CES 2019 Parkbob announced the skill that we created for Alexa. In order to deliver on time, we had to start development long before it was officially announced. Find out more about the obstacles that we faced and some of the creative problem-solving that we applied in order to overcome them.

Voice-operated assistants were undoubtedly one of the biggest trends at CES this year. Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft have all been improving their assistants and showcased their capabilities. While they have far from tapped their full potential, Alexa and co. will be able to take on increasingly complex tasks in the years to come. In the case of Alexa, one of the ways of expanding its feature set is through a so-called “Skill”. Parkbob used its technical expertise to give users detailed information about the rules and restrictions of parking spaces by just asking Alexa. However, we hit a few roadblocks prior to release which called for nifty solutions.

When Parkbob started developing this skill a year ago, Alexa Auto SDK (software development kit) for automobiles had not yet been published. This led to several problems. First of all, we did not have access to the geolocation function of the Echo Dot yet, which meant that we had to find a workaround. Our solution was to develop a companion app that simulated the necessary function. When the skill required a location, it would send a push notification to the app, asking it to send its location to the backend. Only once that process was complete, the skill would continue.

But that wasn’t all. To ensure connectivity and power we had to set up a wifi hotspot and hack together a power supply for the Echo Dot so that it could operate in the car. That way, we were able to create a first working prototype. However, the functionality at that stage was still rather basic. The system could answer the question “Can I park here” with a simple “Yes” or “No” and give information on cost and maximum duration.

Since then, the skill has evolved. The improvements were due to two major developments. First, Amazon released the Alexa Auto SDK for cars. Additionally we got beta access to an API that allows to get the geolocation of the Echo device. This has helped to further improve the skill’s capabilities and to expand its functionality.

The full capability allows users to ask Alexa about specific addresses, points of Interest and any location that could also be typed into Google Maps. That means that drivers are able to predetermine under which conditions they can park before they reach their destination. The skill will also inform users about nearby parking lots and garages, and offers to navigate there.

This new Alexa Skill has the potential to help millions of drivers save time and money every day. Considering the fact that drivers spend an average of 41 hours per year searching for a parking spot, the benefits of this skill cannot be understated. The system already works in thirteen cities in the USA and the roll-out for Europe along with support for additional languages is planned for Q2 2019. Echo Auto can be pre-ordered here.

Pietro Vismara is in charge of Software Development at Parkbob. You can follow him on LinkedIn.

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