Voice recognition (VR) technology is working its way into every facet of life, in every way imaginable. Initially available only in the odd smart appliance, VR exploded with the advent of connected homes and operating systems like Nest and Google Assistant. Now smart speakers with virtual assistants with sexy names like Alexa, Siri, Bixby, and Cortana are waging war for the chance to become your full-time robot butler (and surreptitious data collector, but that’s another story).
In some applications, VR doesn’t make all that much sense. Sure, you can command your smart microwave to “heat chicken” with the voice of God, but you still have to pull the bird out of the fridge, plate it, and prep it when it’s done. Did you really save that much effort by eliminating the insufferable step of pushing a button?
The one place voice recognition is becoming more and more indispensable, however, is in your automobile. “Call Mom,” “play Drake playlist,” and “find nearest Whole Foods” are the kinds of commands you probably use daily. We might already take them for granted, but these protocols are critical advancements—ensuring you keep your eyes safely on the road while your Jag XJ multitasks. Sending texts, reading e-mails, tracking weather forecasts, and broadcasting news updates while being stuck in traffic have unlocked hours of lost productivity and kept us safer.
Daimler’s robust Hey Mercedes system—standard even in the entry-level A-Class—promises to be more intuitive and understands conversational questions. For the most part, it doesn’t require rote commands like other systems; you can ask “Do I need sunglasses tomorrow?” in place of a formal weather check, or utter “I’m cold” instead of “Set temperature to 75 degrees.”
“It’s not the human who has to adapt to the machine, but the other way around,” explains Nils Schanz, Mercedes’ head of voice control. Hey Mercedes also recognizes indirect speech, as well as complex sentences. For instance, Schanz notes that the VR can interpret manifold queries like, “Hey, Mercedes, I’m hungry— show me kid-friendly Italian restaurants in San Francisco with four or more stars that have free Wi-Fi and parking.”
Expect more industry-wide innovations soon. “Sonic curtains” will block unwanted in-car noise from interfering with the voice recognition while still allowing passengers to converse naturally, and a “virtual cube in space” (which desperately needs some marketing love via a new name) will accurately sense commands coming only from a specific place (say, the driver’s seat’s headrest area) and ignore all other stimuli. New systems will better detect sirens in loud conditions, lowering the radio’s volume and sending audio and visual cues to notify a potentially distracted driver of oncoming fire trucks or police.
These are incremental improvements, but soon your SUV could transform from robot butler to trusted confidante. While industry analysts predict nearly 90 percent of all new vehicles will have “onboard” VR capability by 2022, the true game-changer will be “off-board,” or cloud-based, voice recognition. Off-board VR’s ability to converse and learn with a much greater neural network—one found in the cloud—will have profound effects on how we interact with our cars.
Two Massachusetts-based companies, Affectiva and Nuance, are building what they dub the first “empathetic” automotive AI platforms. With these new systems, your car will learn your habits and interpret moods. It will do so first by predicting your normal cycles: Not a morning person? Your Audi will know. And secondly, by picking up subconscious cues in your speech patterns or tones. Feeling bummed out? Your G-Wagen may soon tell you a Bill Burr joke. Cranky because a project meeting went long and you had to skip lunch? Your Bentley may just suggest a soup dumpling place piling up positive reviews nearby (it knows you prefer Shanghai style to Cantonese, naturally). Your car will remind you that your anniversary is coming up and that you’re out of almond milk (again), and even coordinate the air-conditioning, lighting, seat massage, and music to enable a wellness setup tailored specifically to your mood. How considerate.
When was the last time a human companion took you out for soup dumplings while giving you a massage and trying to make you chuckle? The age of connected cars is already here, but the age of your automobile encroaching on your best friend’s territory might be closer than you think.