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'Alexa. Why can't you control everything in my car?'

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Automotive News

Even hands-free voice conversation increases accident risk, studies have shown, partly because people fiddle with their phones even when Bluetooth is on. Pure voice control would allow drivers to keep eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

Voice systems have come a long way from the time computer chips first appeared in cars. Older readers will remember robotic voices in the 1980s informing them that "your door is ajar."

Around the turn of the century, automakers started adding voice recognition systems. They started out crude and didn't get much better. Most carmakers licensed the technology from a company called Nuance, whose Dragon NaturallySpeaking personal computer programs pioneered and popularized "natural language understanding."

The program had no fundamental problems. The lack of computer power in the car was a big issue, and remains so.

To work well, natural language understanding systems need vast computer power. The automaker systems "work off a hard drive, not the cloud; they have limited dictionaries, they have limited commands, which is why your experience totally sucks," said Mike Ramsey, connected-car expert at market research firm Gartner.

With the emergence of the smartphone, drivers and passengers increasingly bypassed the expensive, virtually hard-wired infotainment systems that car makers sold as high-margin options, in favor of a more powerful internet-connected handheld computer.


That caused safety issues and began to open up in-car services where outsiders could compete with the car companies: Google Maps, for example. "The car companies are not selling navigation systems for nearly as much money as they used to," Ramsey said.

Now Alexa, Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Google's Voice have appeared. Taking advantage of those companies' cloud computing systems, experience at crunching big data, and expertise with artificial intelligence, a new product category has emerged: virtual personal assistants.

Unlike in-car technology, these systems are connected to the cloud. As more cars are equipped for broadband communication (pushed in that direction by Tesla) the technology giants see an entry into the automobile.

Carmakers are in a bind. Customers want the technology, but the auto companies so far haven't been able to provide it. Carmakers see commercial uses for data they don't want to cede to Google and Amazon, and they don't want to lose control of their brands.


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