Many OEMs, especially this year at CES, have latched onto the connected life concept and have begun to implement portions of virtual personal assistants (VPAs) in vehicles or have made announcements to do so.
IHS Markit Perspective
Personal assistants used to only be for the rich and famous; if you are familiar with the Iron Man movie franchise, you know that Gwyneth Paltrow's character is a personal assistant to Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark. Hollywood actors and CEOs are often depicted with personal assistants that jot down notes, put meetings in calendars, remind their boss of upcoming meetings, and make reservations. But like much of yesterday’s technology, the smartphone has replaced everything a personal assistant does. It tells you when you have meetings coming up, when to leave for the meeting or appointment, the best route to take, the level of traffic, and what the weather is like outside. In fact today’s virtual personal assistants take it a step further and predict when you need to order a refill of your K-Cups for your Keurig coffee machine, schedule your annual wellness checkup with your doctor, or who to include in your email for the next meeting.
Currently Amazon’s Alexa is probably the best known in the US when it comes to true virtual personal assistants. People sometimes forget though that Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google Assistant are essentially the same thing. Cortana from Microsoft fits into this category too, although is slightly lesser known than the Amazon, Apple, and Google versions. All of these assistants are attempting to make the user’s entire life be connected to the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is basically a fancy way of saying the connected home, connected thermostat, connected refrigerator, etc. Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google want every part of its consumer’s life to be connected and hope because of that they will rely on their assistant for everything. Of course “everything” means all of the time at- home, work, during errands, or what you would use to get to all of those places…for example: the car.
Of course the connected car is not new in today’s world; however, the connected car linked to the smart house is new. There are several ways a user could use connected services, like asking the smart refrigerator to send the grocery list to the vehicle, so the vehicle can then create a route to the nearest store, pre-order those items, so they are waiting curbside for the driver who simply has to open a door.
Many OEMs, especially this year at CES, have latched onto the connected life concept and have begun to implement portions of virtual personal assistants (VPAs) in vehicles or have made announcements to do so. The Renault/Nissan Alliance along with BMW has made announcements that they would be collaborating with Microsoft to implement Cortana; Ford said at Mobile World Congress that it will be partnering with Amazon’s Alexa; and Hyundai/Kia and Daimler will have both Alexa and Google. The Google integration will be a deeper integration than just Android Auto. An important note about Ford is that the Alexa integration was via SmartDeviceLink, so any Ford owners with SmartDeviceLink can get access to that along with Toyota and PSA vehicles once they implement SmartDeviceLink too. Of course several OEMs have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and thus already have some integration with Siri and the Google Assistant. Toyota made the bold announcement that it would be creating its own virtual personal assistant called Yui.
Samsung has also created its own solution called Bixby. Bixby is currently more HMI focused than a true virtual personal assistant, but it will also grow its role as the AI learns and evolves. Bixby is important to note because Samsung finalized the deal to acquire Harman, which is one of the global tier 1 infotainment suppliers, meaning it is very likely that those OEMs that choose Harman systems for their vehicles will also gain access to some form of this virtual personal assistant. Harman is also working with Baidu (similar to what they did with CarLife) to implement Baidu’s artificial intelligence solution, which is a virtual personal assistant, into Harman speakers. There are not a lot of details out yet regarding the Baidu and Harman solution.
Honda is creating an artificial intelligence solution it is calling HANA (Honda Automated Network Assistant). HANA though is not really a virtual personal assistant, as HANA is more focused on knowing the emotions of the driver and then making recommendations or decisions based on the driver’s emotional state. This is somewhat similar to Toyota’s Yui because they both also act as the intelligence for the autonomous vehicle. Toyota’s solution however could be classified as more of a personal assistant, knowing the calendar, meetings, and weather.
These are all solutions for new vehicles being produced by the OEMs, but what about the millions of other vehicles on the roadways that either have no connectivity or limited connectivity, especially when the average of vehicles is now around 11 years. German AutoLabs saw there was potential here and created an aftermarket device that can be put into any vehicle. German AutoLabs is a company that was co-founded by the same man, Holger Weiss, who was in charge of Aupeo when streaming music was first appearing in vehicles. The German AutoLabs solution is called “Chris” and basically does everything your center stack infotainment solution does in today’s new cars by using primarily voice recognition and some gesture controls and touchscreen controls. Unlike Alexa and Google Home, Chris has not yet launched onto the market, but is set for a debut in December 2017 assuming Beta testing goes as planned. And although this is mainly geared towards aftermarket solutions, it feels like it was created to be bought by a Tier 1 supplier so that it can be implement directly rather than having to spend R&D budget to develop yet another solution. Mr. Weiss stated that German AutoLabs will start talking to OEMs and Tier 1s soon.
One benefit that Chris has over some of the IoT solutions is that it is geared specifically towards the car, like Toyota’s Yui solution. The other solutions being put into vehicles are developed for the Smart Home and then being put into vehicles. Some safety concerns arise when this happens of course. The most obvious being that OEMs, suppliers, or the virtual personal assistant creators will need to build safety features into these solutions to minimize driver distraction during stressful driving maneuvers and a firewall for cybersecurity reasons. Chris from German AutoLabs does not directly connect to the vehicle, which is a positive and a negative. It states it can detect when complicated driving maneuvers or high stress moments are happening via the smartphone and will shut down while the driver focuses on those. Ultimately though the direct connection to the car is the best way to get information related to driving.
Another downfall for all of these solutions is accidentally being turned on via the radio, conversation either on the phone or in person, or by passengers. The radio seems odd, but there are cases of Alexa hearing Amazon commercials and activating, and Burger King intentionally trying to activate Google Home units to pull up the Wiki page for the Whopper. Those all seem harmless, but when done in the vehicle it can change destinations or distract the driver enough that it causes confusion and accidents. Of course it also needs mentioning that although the goals of all of these assistants is to make life simpler and safer in the vehicles, but research shows that just having a conversation on the phone, with your virtual assistant, or with a passenger can be just as distracting as texting while driving.
Outlook and Implications
As OEMs begin to implement these solutions into vehicles a few things will need to be observed. Is there a clear winner (or two) that becomes the de facto solution? There are some big names throwing their technological knowhow and money behind these solutions and a lot of potential money and data on the line for the winner. Will the “home grown” solutions, those developed in-house, have a chance against some of the bigger players? And finally, will these actually be the solution to reducing accidents and ultimately lethal car crashes that are caused by distracted drivers using their phones? These are all things the industry will be looking for and questions IHS Markit will be ready to answer when the answers start to emerge through data and market trends.