JBL has announced a slew of new products at CES today, and the latest product is a bit of an interesting one. It's the JBL LINK Drive. What this boils down to is, essentially a Google Home that you can plug into your car and have Google Assistant on the road with you. JBL doesn't talk a whole lot about what this device really is, but it looks like a Google Home-type device, though it can also charge your phone with a 2.1A USB port - so don't expect to get fast charging here. JBL says that this is optimized specifically for driving and the Google Assistant. It essentially pairs with your phone over Bluetooth and uses Google Assistant that way. This means that if you share your vehicle with your significant other, that both of you will be able to use your own Google accounts with the Assistant while you are driving. The Google Assistant can be very useful while driving, as it can do things like find new music for you to play, read your text messages to you, give you directions and so much more. The JBL LINK Drive does have a bit of a weird shape for something that is going to plug into your car's 12V outlet, with it being a triangle, but it does make it look rather unique.
According to Harman's general manager of Car Audio Services, Jeffrey Fay, "market research shows there is a low engagement rate of motorists using voice activation technology in cars. We're finding drivers often experience poor performance with their smartphones due to all of the noises inside their vehicle and on the road." Fay says that the JBL LINK Drive seeks to address all of these interruptions and make voice activation technology much easier to use while driving. Of course, partnering with Google and the Google Assistant was a no-brainer for JBL here, seeing as Google does lead the industry in its voice technology. Not to mention the fact that Google Assistant is supported on both Android and iOS, and it is also one of the most popular personal assistants out there. Harman could have went with Amazon Alexa as well, but Alexa is more geared towards controlling smart home products, while Google Assistant can do virtually everything, making it a better option for using in the car.
The JBL LINK Drive is always-listening
Much like a Google Home that you might have in your home, the JBL LINK Drive is always listening to you, waiting for the "OK Google" command to interact with you. This means that while you are driving, you can say "OK Google" and tell it to text your wife that you're stuck in traffic, all without taking your eyes off of the road and without having to touch your phone. The whole point here is to make it easier to drive without getting distracted. Now while this might sound like it's doing the opposite, it should keep you from looking at your phone while driving.
While driving, it can be pretty noisy in the car, especially if you have some kids in the car too. So JBL has outfitted the LINK Drive with dual noise-cancelling microphones, which is going to keep the road, wind, engine and general driving sounds out when you are speaking to the LINK Drive. For example, if you have your music blasting, and say "OK Google" to your phone, it probably won't hear you. But with the dual noise-cancelling microphones on the LINK Drive, it will hear you and you can go ahead and give it the command you wanted. Once you say "OK Google" it will quiet your music though, so that it is easier to hear you.
Similar to a Google Home, the JBL LINK Drive also sports a microphone button on the device, so that you can turn off the microphone if you wish. There is also a Google Assistant button, allowing you to press it and speak to the Google Assistant whenever you want. These are both important features to have, especially if you are looking to keep Google Assistant from always listening to you, but still want to use it in the car. Finally, JBL LINK Drive does feature the four LED lights that are common on Google Assistant devices. This will indicate when it is starting up (after you've started up the car), and also indicate when it is listening.
Set up is as easy as pairing a new Bluetooth device to your smartphone
JBL was smart here when it comes to setting up the LINK Drive. Making it super easy, so all you really need to do is pair it to your phone like a regular Bluetooth device. And because it is using Bluetooth to do this, once you've paired it once, it will automatically connect once you are in the car again. So you'll never need to worry about connecting it every time you get in the car and go somewhere - just make sure to leave Bluetooth on, on your smartphone. Now since the LINK Drive does play through the speakers in the car, you will need to connect it to your sound system as well. If you car has Bluetooth, it will automatically connect to the car and sync it with your phone at the same time (acting as a pass-through for audio). However, if your car does not have Bluetooth, you will need to use the included auxiliary cable to do a wired connection to your vehicle.
Pricing & Availability
Harman says that the JBL LINK Drive will be available starting this Spring and will cost $59.95. It will be available at JBL's normal crop of retailers, as well as JBL.com. That might seem rather expensive for something like this, but it is really the first of its kind - we've seen similar things with Amazon Alexa that cost more than this. It's the latest product to join JBL's LINK lineup which encompasses all of its Google Home/Assistant-compatible devices from smart speakers to soundbars and much more.