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The connected cars of the future are all talk and some action
ONE day while brushing your teeth and getting ready to head into work for a 9am meeting, you get a message from your personal assistant suggesting you leave 10 minutes earlier than you planned to, because traffic is extra gnarly.
Within a few years, that assistant could well be your car. The Covid-19 pandemic may have accelerated digitalisation across the board, but carmakers have been racing to insert themselves into your digital lifestyle for years now.
Artificial Intelligence (AI), connecting cars to the Internet and improving integration with your existing smart devices are some of the things that will turn your prized set of wheels into yet another digital thing that you interact with in daily life.
"There will be a much better interaction between your personal devices from home, from your own digital life with your phone, glasses, or whatever, and the underlying ecosystems where you write your content from, and the vehicle that you're driving," says Tim Siu-Lung Fargel, head of Digital Product Strategy, Offer Structure and Business Intelligence, BMW/MINI.
That will change not just how we use our cars, he tells The Business Times, but what we use them for.
Instead of merely belting up and driving to dinner, for example, he foresees us using consulting our vehicles to find a restaurant, getting it to book a table and then suggesting the quickest route there and, perhaps most important of all, finding a place to park.
Much of that is already possible with today's cars. The Audi connect suite of digital services allows users to make Google-powered searches right on their cars' touchscreens, for example, while simply uttering the phrase, "Hey, BMW, find me a pizza" will already call up a list of suitable restaurants on cars equipped with the BMW ConnectedDrive feature.
With a 4G connection, some BMWs no longer need a physical key to operate, meaning you could let someone borrow your wheels by granting them access through their phone.
But engineers are working on making such systems work much more smoothly and naturally than they do today. One way is to improve voice control, which will become the predominant way of interacting with your car, Dr Fargel says.
Again, the technology is available today - various cars already respond to voice-activated commands - but according to Dr Fargel current systems are only in their infancy. That's because they get better the more they are used.
"The underlying notion is, it learns over time," he says of the brand's Intelligent Personal Assistant. "They continually get smarter, comparable to a child or a toddler. Continuously, usage data and language skills are improved and fed into the algorithms."
For some car companies, switching drivers over to voice control is a matter of helping them to stay focused on driving. "As the technology grows inside the vehicle, drivers have access to more features via touch screens and physical controls, and that can get complex if we don't manage it very carefully," Charan Lota, chief engineer, Connected Technologies at Toyota North America recently said at a virtual technology showcase with Cerence, a company that supplies such systems to car companies.
"Voice is always a quick way to access features and functions. I use voice around my house all the time to turn on the lights, sprinklers or any gadget that I can get my hands on that I can connect to voice."
BMW's Dr Fargel says that conventional touch controls will always be relevant in a car. But mid-air gestures look set to become important, too. Next year, BMW will launch a new interaction system with its iNext, an electric car with self-driving capabilities. Based on gaze, gesture and voice controls, it will enable impressive new tricks. Want to find out what a given button does? Point at it and ask the car.
BMW says drivers will be able to interact with their direct surroundings, too; in the iNext you could point out the window and ask, "What's this building?" or "How long is that business open?"
While that could hit the market next year, the longer term could see your car becoming even more human-like to interact with. Musing about what things will be like further in the future, Dr Fargel says he can imagine your car talking to you through an avatar, projected as a 3D hologram.
BMW's Intelligent Personal Assistant has taken a tiny first step towards that level of customisation by letting you name it (the one in Dr Fargel's car is called Luigi), but when AI can make personal avatars understand natural language, interacting with your car in the future could feel as easy and natural as brushing your teeth.