Incoming tech: the voice-controlled car butler!

Published: 14 March 2017

► Voice control tech in vehicles
► Speaking to cars is the future
► With help from tech giants

Using today’s voice control in cars is like being imprisoned in a nightmarish comedy sketch, where using the frustratingly limited script to request a Little Mix song results in a call to your hostile ex-wife.

But Nissan, Ford, VW and others envisage a less alimony-inflating future, where artificial intelligence and cloud computing power allow drivers to control car functions with free-form commands.

Tech giants helping car makers

Companies have enlisted the support of tech giants – Microsoft in Nissan’s case, Amazon for VW – to realise their visions. VW is striving to marry up Amazon’s voice-controlled personal assistant, Alexa, with its Car-Net apps and services.

The aim is for you to be able to tell Alexa to add reminders to your shopping list, or switch on the lights in your connected home, as you drive. VW is vague about the activation date. Stateside, Ford promises you’ll be able to request weather reports, control your music or add to a shopping list this summer, by starting a command with ‘Alexa’ once you’ve hit the in-car voice button.   

Voice control to Major VW

You can also access car features at home, by ordering your Amazon Echo to ask the car to relay its fuel tank capacity and range, or pre-heat the car on a cold day.

Sure, such limited features are already available via apps, but replacing minutes of smartphone-tapping with a quick Alexa chat is quicker and more convenient.

What’s Amazon’s ulterior motive?

To sell you goods: VW used the drab example of Alexa ordering new wiper blades, because it knows your car’s precise spec. More appealing is for drivers ultimately to stream Amazon Prime content in-car: Jeremy Clarkson could watch The Grand Tour in his next Golf GTI. 

That’s Nissan’s more out-there vision, with drivers watching content while the car does the driving. ‘Autonomy is also about content – consuming media, the internet, Skype calls or working – and how it’s shown to the driver and passenger,’ says Ogi Redzic, senior VP for connected vehicles and mobility services.

He predicts that connected services will become more compelling to the masses than today’s benchmarks, such as 0-62mph times. 

The transformation doesn’t end there

‘It’s an opportunity for us to reimagine the car interior,’ continues Redzic. As natural language becomes bulletproof for operating cars, designers will be able to eliminate switches and screens. There’ll be a massive safety benefit too, with drivers able to keep their eyes on the road – and the temptation to tap out a text at the wheel eliminated.

Concludes Redzic: ‘This is what tomorrow holds, and we’re putting the building blocks in place today.’

Your car will increasingly interact with your house and other family members

Four facts about the internet of things in cars

Soon all appliances will join the Internet of Things. Just don’t programme the kettle to drive to Belper

1) Cloud? Concierges? What?

In-car microphones will pick up your command – ‘remind me to get flowers when I leave work’. Your instruction is recorded and streamed into the cloud, where AI processes it, setting the relevant app reminder. Alexa’s learned profile will have established where you work, so when your car leaves the premises, you’ll get the reminder. 

2) What’s behind this?

‘VW is an expert in mobility and Amazon sells goods and entertainment. Connecting both worlds is the next step,’ says Volkmar Tanneberger, VW’s head of electrical and electronic development. SNS Telecom Research estimates connected car services are already worth $14bn globally – and will grow 31% a year out to 2020. Car makers want in on this revenue.

3) On-sofa car chat

Lots of people already talk to their car, not always consciously, while they’re driving. With Amazon Echo, you’ll be able to sit at home and tell your car to accept a nav destination. If you’re streaming a Spotify playlist at home and head out, the music will pause, then continue in-car. This Internet of Things is connecting myriad devices, including cars.

4) What’s Renault-Nissan doing?

Renault-Nissan is buddying up with Microsoft; its Cortana aims to offer much of Alexa’s functionality. At the Consumer Electronics Show, Nissan previewed two neat features – future in-car dictation of word-perfect emails, and the ability to cyber-stalk your wife or kids’ whereabouts when they’re out in the car (similar to today’s Glympse app). You’ll also carry your own preferences – music, climate, favoured destinations – in the cloud, so every car becomes personalised as you get in.

More car tech news

By Phil McNamara

Editor-in-chief of CAR magazine