With AI digital assistant, drivers talk to their cars

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The Mycroft AI digital voice assistant, on display at CES in Las Vegas, can be adapted to specific vehicles. Photo credit: SHIRAZ AHMED

LAS VEGAS — Joshua Montgomery, CEO of Mycroft AI, has a bone to pick with Amazon Alexa, the voice-controlled digital helper that companies such as Toyota, Ford and BMW have integrated into vehicles.

“Even though [the car] may run a voice assistant from a tech company, you can’t use it to check what the tire pressure is,” Montgomery said.

He turned his gripe into an idea: an independent, white-label digital assistant that automakers can customize for use in their vehicles. Last year, the startup honed the product by putting it into a Jaguar F-Type test vehicle at Jaguar Land Rover’s tech incubator in Portland, Ore.

Now, nestled amongst dozens of startups at CES 2018’s Eureka Park, Montgomery was courting carmakers, pitching freedom from Silicon Valley’s dominant positioning.

“The automakers wouldn’t tear out the instrument cluster and allow you to use an iPad,” Montgomery said. “They’re looking for a quality user experience, but also data independence.”

The industry is in the early days of utilizing smart digital assistants. The use of artificial intelligence leveraging personal data enables a unique user experience on-the-go, far removed from the clunky, inarticulate voice technologies of the past.

Backers of the technology say it has broad implications for the driving experience and, eventually, autonomous vehicles.

“What’s going to really define your driving experience is the AI that the car companies create for the car,” said Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang in his keynote presentation. This year, Nvidia introduced a software development kit for app developers to incorporate AI assistant capabilities.

Digital assistants are experiencing a coming of age fueled by technological advancements in voice recognition and command.

The trend was omnipresent at CES, with Google plastering its assistant’s catchphrase, “Hey Google,” on billboards and buildings — even on the Las Vegas Monorail.

Although it may be years before cars crack jokes and converse with riders, digital assistants are being used in a variety of ways to access entertainment and navigation features.

“That sort of deep integration is the work we’re doing now” with carmakers, said Bret Greenstein, IBM’s vice president in charge of Watson, the company’s enterprise artificial intelligence product. Better known as the AI that won first place and $ 1 million in a 2011 “Jeopardy!” competition, IBM now markets the technology to companies. At CES, IBM collaborated with Harman and Local Motors on separate projects to integrate AI into show vehicles.

“Everybody has different reasons, but I think they’re all converging around the idea that the automakers are going to provide a much more personalized user experience for all of us,” said Greenstein.

Joshua Montgomery, CEO of Mycroft AI, says automakers want data independence. Photo credit: SHIRAZ AHMED

For car designers, these assistants can be a flexible alternative to more touch screens and buttons.

“It’s about the dialogue you’re having with the vehicle,” said Luc Donckerwolke, Hyundai Motor Co.’s executive vice president of design. “If you’re creating a car with a personal assistant, it’s going to be a complement. There’s a big delay in how people integrate these new technologies.”

But several carmaker announcements this year give a glimpse of what is to come.

Mercedes-Benz’ new infotainment system, developed with Nvidia and set to debut this year in the redesigned A-class sedan, relies heavily on voice control and a smart recommendation algorithm to personalize the drive to users’ music tastes.

The upcoming Volkswagen I.D. Buzz microbus will use Nvidia’s tech to enable voice and facial recognition.

As autonomous cars take over the roads and learn passengers’ habits and preferences, they will be able to anticipate and act on specific cues.

“A moment [that calls for action] now is low tire pressure, is getting started in the morning,” IBM’s Greenstein said. “But later, a moment can be a crying baby.” In that case, the car’s digital personal assistant could detect a rest stop and autonomously navigate the vehicle toward it.

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