CES 2017: AI is about to hitch a ride in your car

CES used to be all about super-slim TVs, new smartphones and ridiculous laptops, but this year’s show is being dominated by the automotive world. Whether it’s a new concept car, an announcement about hybrid vehicles or the latest Faraday Future unveil, CES 2017 has been full of car news. But at this year’s event, there’s been another new trend in automotive tech – the rise of AI-powered passengers.

For the past few months, and now at CES, carmakers have queued up to tell us how they’re implementing new digital assistants in their cars. Back in December last year, BMW announced it was trialling IBM’s Watson AI in a handful of BMW i8s, and yesterday the German manufacturer also unveiled a version of Microsoft’s Cortana running in one of its cars.Within the past week, Nissan has also shown its own version of Cortana integration, while Ford recently announced it will be bringing Amazon’s Alexa assistant to its in-car entertainment systems.

So what’s the reason for all this? Simply put, cars are becoming almost too advanced for us. Connected cars by their very definition have access to pretty much the entire internet, and a traditional car interior doesn’t make it easy to access everything on offer. Even with the best controls on offer, it can be a bit… frustrating. High-end cars have access to more information than we can easily get our hands on. For example, the BMW 7 Series has an incredible amount of features on tap, but you’ll need to be very handy with the car’s menus to switch between the ones you want.

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The most obvious solution is voice control, but in reality it’s only half the answer. Most voice-control systems need to hear specific commands to work properly, so you end up needing to learn their disjointed phrases. While they keeps your hands free, they’re not perfect – or that clever, either. What’s needed is a service you can talk to naturally, and one that can suggest things before you even ask – just based on your previous behaviour and preferences. And that’s where a digital assistant comes in.

Services such as Alexa and Cortana have been trained on smartphones, Bluetooth speakers and games consoles, and they’re now good enough to deal with the wealth of information you’d find in a car. That’s why Ford, BMW, Nissan and others have quickly begun to implement them, and it’s also why BMW is also experimenting with IBM Watson.ibm_bmw_watson_i8

With connected car services becoming more common in even the most basic vehicles, and car-to-X technology on the way, it’ll only be a matter of time before most cars have digital assistants fitted as standard. Perhaps in the future, we won’t buy a car based on just looks, features or fuel economy; we’ll also buy it based on whether we’re better mates with Alexa, Siri, Watson or Cortana. 

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