Voice Assistants In-Car
Sep 28, 2020

How Voice Assistants are Shaping the Future of In-Vehicle Control

The total number of in-car voice assistant users is 45% higher than the number of smart speaker device owners, according to a 2020 report by Voicebot.ai. Shyamala Prayaga, product owner digital assistant at Ford Motor Company and Mehul Patel, director of product management at SoundHound Inc., spoke to Keri Roberts of Branding Connection at the Voice Tech Summit in India to discuss the global and regional trends impacting the rapid growth of the in-car voice assistant market. 

Watch the panel discussion in its entirety here.

The following is a recap of that panel discussion covering a range of topics including:

  • Advancements in speech recognition and design best practices 
  • Importance of personality and branding for in-car assistants 
  • Improvement of voice assistants over the years
  • How automakers are approaching voice as an extension of their brand

Q: Why is in-vehicle voice AI so important? 

Shyamala: When you are in the car. you are busy, your hands are busy, your eyes are busy, and you’re focusing on driving, and there are things you want to do at that time. You may want to call someone or check your email, but you cannot. That is where the beauty of being able to do all those things through voice comes into play.

Another thing is you are mobile and if you are going to a new location and you don’t know the address, or you don’t know where the closest services or points of interest are located. It makes more sense to ask the car something like, “Hey find me a nearby Starbucks.” 

Some of these contextual use cases make more sense when they are in cars. And that’s pretty much the reason why it’s picking up. 

Mehul: The car is a great use case for voice assistants and the combination of safety and convenience is especially effective in the car.

But, it’s not just about safety with hands-free commands. Good voice assistants also have easy, intuitive, and fluid interfaces and don’t require the users to be overly occupied or distracted by unnecessary complexity. In fact, voice assistants allow drivers to keep their focus on the road, be alert, and if something happens, they’re ready to handle any unexpected obstacles. And so looking in the future, I really anticipate assistants to be used even more in the car going forward. 

Q: How have you seen digital assistants in the car improve over the years?

MehulVoice in the car has been around for a long time, starting back in 2001. I remember buying a new car and being excited to try out the voice interface. But, iit didn’t quite work as well as it should. It only recognized a very small number of commands that had to be repeated many times.

But in the last few years voice AI has really improved. They handle the noise better, they can handle accents better, and they can handle natural conversations better. As a result, many people have started using voice assistants in the car for common tasks, like calling people, looking at places and directions, and playing music. Our auto partners are telling us their users are starting to use voice assistants on a regular basis and are expecting to use them even more as they continue to improve.

Shyamala: People have been desiring things like email and dictations. Things like asking to join a meeting or schedule a meeting and still be able to concentrate on driving.  These capabilities were initially launched on smartphones, but now they’re valuable and relevant use cases in the car.

Q: What is your team doing that enables brands to encourage customers to consistently use voice in-vehicle?

Shyamala: It’s a combination of things. In previous models of cars, voice was a challenge because of the capabilities of speech recognition. It was still evolving. Natural language is one of the biggest opportunities and we’ve been focusing our effort to make our interfaces more natural. 

The second part is when you interact with a voice assistant, it’s not just the conversation, but everything inside the car that makes the experience. The templates, the visual cues, the ear cons you play, and more humanistic prompts—everything forms the experience. In the past, not many automotive industry companies focused on these kinds of things. What I realized is that all of those little things are making the connection with the user. 

Now, if you say, “How can I help you?” or “Hello, I’m your bot, I can do XYZ for you,” the experience is completely different because now you are making the user successful by giving them some things you are capable of doing and setting expectations.

Mehul: I’d like to share two other areas where our team’s made great innovations to help our partners.

The first is a technique we call Deep Meaning Understanding™. This new, intuitive approach allows us to understand very complex conversations. Recognizing simple commands like “Call Mom,” or “Play music,” is a good start, but real life demands are usually much more complex and can have long, complex utterances.

When users try something like, “Find nearby restaurants, excluding Italian,” most voice assistants will return Italian restaurants as a result. That’s not a good experience, especially when you’re driving the car because that forces you to scroll down and look at the screen. Suddenly, you’re no longer paying attention to the road.

With Deep Meaning Understanding, we allow users to have fairly complex and natural conversations, such as “Show me Asian restaurants, excluding Chinese and Japanese, that have more than four stars.” 

Users can then ask follow-up questions with full context. They can say, “Now sort by rating and pricing and only show the ones that are open past 9:00 PM on Thursday.” Context and understanding makes it easier for users. They can ask for things just like talking to another person, rather than robot talk.

The second thing is that the voice assistant must be fully integrated with the car and its features. It must be designed and customized in a way that’s in alignment with the brand and the product. 

We don’t believe in the world where one assistant’s going to rule them all. We humbly believe that there’ll be many voice assistants, each specializing in different areas. This is just like in the real world. For instance, we don’t expect a top rated restaurant to serve both Italian and Japanese food. Similarly, having your favorite hairstylist give you advice on investing in the stock market would be suspicious. There are experts for different things in the real world and similarly, a different voice assistant for different instances.

Our platform allows our partners to customize voice assistants to match their company, their brand, and their product. They can customize almost every aspect, including the wake phrase and the phrasing and style of responses. 

Mehul: In India, there are three exciting trends. The first one is that there are increasingly more connected cars on the road, and there is tremendous change happening with really powerful, cloud-based voice recognition models. Cloud connectivity allows you to access more information in real-time, like weather and sports scores.

The second trend is the advent of modern speech recognition solutions. They’re very good now at handling accents and languages. 

The third trend is user comfort and familiarity with voice assistants because they have used one before in smart speakers or on their phones. Voice is no longer some strange thing that happens in Star Wars and Star Trek, this is something that we now do ourselves. 

The convergence of these three trends result in brilliant opportunities for voice assistants in cars in India. I’ve had the great fortune and privilege of working with great partners, Honda and Kia, in India for the last few years to build voice assistants for the Indian market. We launched the first car in the beginning of last year and had a tremendous positive reception. Since then, we’ve added more features that are specifically geared for India, including support for cricket leagues and Indian holidays. Including these types of features are important to helping users become more familiar and gain trust in the voice assistants in the car.

We’re looking into more features like helping people stay organized. Soon, assistants will no longer just be about the car and simple things, they’ll help you organize your life. Very exciting times, indeed. 

Q: Why is it important to create personality in the car with a digital assistant?

Shyamala: I was at a personal branding event a couple of years back and this person said that if you don’t brand yourself, people will start branding you. That’s true for voice assistants as well. Voice assistants are like an employee of the company and they reflect the brand. It’s really important to make that initial connection and have a personality for our users to connect with.

Anthropomorphism is so real. We name our cars, our plants, and other familiar things. We try to find human-like traits in non-living things. If users feel they’re engaging with a friendly bot, they will want to engage more. Companies need to decide, based on branding guidelines. what their Bot’s personality should be. Not only does it help people to connect, it also helps the company establish a standard vocabulary and style guide to inform the bot speaking style, the tone of voice, the choice of words, and things like that. 

Mehul: We really strongly believe that there’s going to be a diversity of voice assistants and each one needs to match each company’s own brand—and not just the overall company, but within the company and its individual products.

Users are expecting the voice assistant to carry on that brand’s personality, and that of the product, so there’s one personality in your SUV and another in your luxury cars. To hijack all that and have just one personality in all cars, no matter what, doesn’t make sense.

We, as a company, believe in making sure that each of our partners have the ability to extend their brands through voice assistants in the future.

Seeking more advice for building better in-car voice assistants?

Discover best practices for implementing a custom, branded voice assistant into your vehicles in our Speech-to-Meaning blog. Learn why leading auto manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Kia, and Hyundai rely on Houndify’s independent voice AI platform to power their voice experiences by exploring our auto solutions page.

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