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BMW's new virtual assistant responds to, "Hey, BMW."
BMW’s new virtual assistant responds to, “Hey, BMW.”

Image: BMW

Another “wake word” has entered the lexicon. Instead of “OK, Google” or “Hey, Alexa,” this time it’s “Hey, BMW.”

With BMW’s new virtual assistant, coming to the German car maker in 2019, voice commands are front and center in the car. It’s a new way to interact with your vehicle.

The assistant was revealed Thursday at a TechCrunch Disrupt main stage event. BMW senior vice president of digital products, Dieter May, showed it off, extolling its skills beyond “just voice commands.” He said the assistant would “live side by side with you” — which is either super helpful or super creepy.

It’s compatible with other voice assistants, so don’t worry, you can still shout at Alexa to put more laundry detergent on your Amazon shopping list.

May was very clear in a conversation after the launch event that this assistant is not something to ask informative queries like “What year was Barack Obama born?” Instead it’s more of a coach about driving and getting places, think: “Where’s the nearest charging station that’s still open?” As May sees it, “It’s more of a co-driver.”

What really distinguishes the BMW assistant is its auto skills. “It’s a real expert who knows everything about your car,” May said. So when something makes a weird noise or a light starts blinking, you can quickly get answers.

You can rename the assistant, and BMW encourages conversation and casual chatting. The assistant is supposed to be able to pick up on patterns and habits. “It’s a much more natural and easier way to interact,” May said. With its predicative abilities, you shouldn’t have to tell it to take you to the gym; it’s already got the GPS loaded up once you sit down. Since we spend so much time in our cars, the AI can quickly learn what we want.

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The car isn’t a new space for voice. Far from it, with Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto and third-party services built into infotainment systems, like Nuance with its Dragon Drive interface. Talking to Waze (“OK, Waze“) brings a voice-based navigation system into your car through the app or infotainment system. Then there are devices that act like an Amazon Echo, but for your car, like the Muse.

Just this week Uber added voice commands for drivers picking up passengers. Mercedes unveiled its newest electric vehicle, which will of course include its proprietary voice-controlled user experience, MBUX. On Thursday, Nuance announced an in-car partnership with Affectiva Automotive AI, the MIT startup that measures your emotional reactions and facial expressions. The system will recognize if you’re angry, happy, sleepy, distracted or angry while driving. Emotion-based control is like next-level voice control, where your sad voice could trigger some uplifting tunes.

Amazon’s announcement last month about an Alexa integration coming directly into cars seemed to reinvigorate the potential of in-car voice assistants in a way that CarPlay and Android Auto haven’t, even though plenty of cars work with those operating systems.

Voice has become the go-to tool for the modern household, such as in the “smart” kitchen or living room, and even more so in the car.

A survey from digital consulting firm Capgemini found 85 percent of voice users prefer to use the tool while on the go, meaning in their cars, on their commutes, on a bike ride. 

Alex Stock, a partner at Capgemini, said in a call that “car companies are trying to use voice to create more exciting experiences for consumers.” So while the wow factor is still high that cars can turn on the air conditioning or one day interpret your frustration into a pitstop for ice cream (sounds plausible), the next step is commoditizing the experience. 

As we’ve seen again and again, cars have figured out how to offer a seamless experience with directions and music choices coming up on command. Now that we’re hooked on voice, it’s time for the cars to turn the “cockpit experience” into an e-commerce shopping hotspot.

Anything to keep us talking to our cars.

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