BMW’s New Co-Driver

Manufacturer Previews Its Voice Assistant for Cars


BMW_assistantThe driver’s seat is one of the most practical environments to install a truly functional artificial assistant, given the amount of time people spend in their cars and the need to concentrate on the road. Car-makers have caught on to this, and major brands in this space have been collaborating with technology companies to offer artificial intelligence-based assistants similar to those from Amazon and Google.

Last week, German car-maker BMW unveiled a digital voice-controlled assistant. Called the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant, the platform will be available by March 2019 in upcoming models featuring the company’s latest 7.0 operating system. Unlike most manufacturers, BMW has chosen to develop its own voice assistant powered by artificial intelligence, though it is based on Microsoft’s Azure cloud service and conversational technologies. Azure has long been BMW’s preferred public cloud and the two companies have had a close relationship for years.

BMW says its personal assistant continuously learns about the driver, who can control all standard in-car features by voice, including navigation and temperature inside the vehicle, and check the status of tire pressure, oil level and other engine settings, for example. The system can also explain the car’s features.

The assistant will respond to the voice command “Hey BMW”, although car owners will be able to personalize the service by changing its trigger word. It will support 23 languages and will be available in the US, Germany, the UK, Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Brazil and Japan.

BMW also highlights future enhancements including the ability to speak to the car through a smart speaker or smartphone as well as interacting with other digital voice assistants. The company says its artificial intelligence technology is designed to be proactive, warning the driver about potential problems with the car and providing tips to save fuel or avoid traffic. It can even make an appointment with a BMW service centre.

By developing their own infotainment platforms rather than relying on third-party services such as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, car-makers hold greater control over their product development cycles and can benefit from deeper integration. This approach also lets them collect crucial user data. The ability to gain an understanding of drivers’ actions and preferences gives automakers an opportunity to create new revenue streams and improve the user experience. 

This, of course, is a balancing act. Not all car-makers can afford the time and cost of such intensive internal research and development efforts. So it’s likely that a two- or three-tier hierarchy will emerge, with larger players driving significant internal development and smaller manufacturers partnering more extensively for software, analytics, artificial intelligence and more. As value will increasingly come from the data generated and its role in the customer relationship, this could create a very significant divide within the automotive industry. Nonetheless, manufacturers need to carefully evaluate the areas where they should seek partnerships and those where they should pursue organic, in-house development.

BMW isn’t the first car manufacturer to develop its own voice assistant. The Mercedes-Benz User Experience offers similar features — and the similar wake phrase of “Hey, Mercedes”. It allows users to control the temperature in the car or search for nearby restaurants, among other tasks. It’s understandable that companies view this as strategically important capability, but user experience could become hopelessly messy if it’s not managed carefully. BMW’s relationship with Amazon and Microsoft means Alexa and most likely Cortana will also be available in the same cockpit. BMW doesn’t see this as a problem, suggesting that its own assistant is for performing car-related functions and that Alexa will be used for other tasks.

This is a stark warning about the looming voice assistant malaise. Car-makers have wisely embraced technology partners, having kept them at arm’s length for years. However, both tech giants and auto companies will need to work more collaboratively to ensure that consumer choice doesn’t compromise user experience. A single interface that hides the complexity of multiple assistants seems like a necessity, but could well prove a challenging journey.