Auto Makers Showcase Cars Equipped With Virtual Assistants


The new Toyota Concept-i concept car was unveiled at CES in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Photo: rick wilking/Reuters

First there was connecting the car to the smartphone. Now auto makers are rushing to make the car talk back.

The car-making alliance between Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co. on Thursday revealed details about how voice-assistant technology from Microsoft Corp. will eventually help drivers with predictive tasks such as recommending routes to appointments stored in a calendar or suggesting a time for the vehicle to be taken in for maintenance.

The announcement at CES 2017, a technology expo in Las Vegas, followed Ford Motor Co.’s disclosure that it is bringing Inc.’s Alexa voice-command software into its vehicles. Drivers of certain cars who have Alexa-equipped Amazon devices in at home later this month can tap into some car functions from home, such as starting the engine and unlocking car doors.

Then this summer, Ford vehicles equipped with an infotainment system called Sync 3 will be able to work with an Amazon Alexa app, allowing drivers to perform tasks such as searching for addresses or adding a product to an Amazon shopping list.

The companies join other auto makers, including BMW AG and Hyundai Motor Co., in rushing to bring virtual assistants into the car. Many of these auto makers are already working on enabling computers to drive cars with limited or no human interaction, aiming to put autonomous vehicles on the road by 2020.

Amazon’s unexpected success selling the Echo speaker, which uses Alexa to answer questions, has opened up an arms race between tech giants and consumer-product makers to put voice-powered, artificial intelligence software at the center of people’s lives. CES this year is full of home appliances, such as lamps and refrigerators, that incorporate voice assistants.

People are becoming accustomed to interacting with their devices by voice at home, so it makes sense to incorporate into cars, said Don Butler, Ford executive director of connected vehicle and services.

“We want to actively participate and help shape what that vehicle interaction is like rather than sitting back and letting it, in essence, happen to us,” he said.

Nissan’s relationship with Microsoft, which spans beyond the tech company’s Cortana voice-powered software to a range of services, is part of Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn’s strategy to prepare for the introduction of more than 10 autonomous vehicles by 2020.

The relationship shows how auto makers are turning to tech players with skills they don’t have in-house, said Ogi Redzic, Renault-Nissan senior vice president of connected vehicles and mobility services.

Auto makers see great potential beyond simply having a device that can open the garage door.

Toyota Motor Corp. earlier this week in Las Vegas revealed a vision of a future car with a voice-activated interface called Yui that appears in various places inside the vehicle and uses lights, sounds and touch to communicate.

“We want it to basically form a bond with you, it becomes a partner,” said Ian Cartabiano, studio chief designer at Toyota’s Calty Design Research.

Nvidia Corp., the chip maker that has been developing an AI car-computing system, announced on Wednesday new abilities to create a so-called co-pilot for self-driving cars that can help the vehicles operate by pointing out approaching hazards. Making use of cameras and speakers inside the car, the system also can track the driver’s head movements, eye gazing and lips to better understand and predict what is going on with the human.

At a company event ahead of CES, Nvidia demonstrated a driving situation in which a car encounters a bicyclist on the roadway. “Maybe your eyes aren’t looking in that direction, maybe your head is not looking in that direction, and the car realizes that you might be more cautious and, in this case, it detects that there is a biker and tells you,” said Jen-Hsun Huang, chief executive of Nvidia.

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