Hitting the road: How Google Assistant, Alexa and AI are coming to your car

You’re running out of excuses to text and drive.

At CES 2018, auto companies are announcing new voice assistant features for their cars en masse. Google and Amazon are fighting all-out to lend Google Assistant and Alexa to as many autos at this year’s show as possible. Even Nvidia is joining the fray with a new voice-assisting car AI.

Soon, many drivers won’t need to tap a screen to check directions or look up info while they drive. Here are all of the ways car makers are bringing voice assistants to the cars you'll drive in the near future. 

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Toyota is integrating Amazon Alexa into some of its 2018/19 models, and not just for the luxury Lexus brands.

During their CES press conference, Toyota explained that its built-in Alexa model will have many of the same features as your typical Amazon Echo. Beyond asking for directions or checking the news, you can control connected smart home devices remotely, such as upping the temperature gauge or unlocking a smart lock, all through voice commands. 

Toyota’s only the latest in a series of brands to jump on Alexa’s platform. At last year’s CES, Ford announced a partnership with Amazon to sync Alexa to a button on some steering wheels, while BMW and Mini are working to incorporate Alexa into its cars by mid-2018. 

Ford may have Alexa functionality in their cars for now, but the venerable car maker appears ready to strike out on its own as of CES 2018: the company is looking to launch a “vehicle-to-everything” communication system with Qualcomm for a safer self-driving ecosystem. 

What does this have to do with voice assistants? Ford is envisioning its cloud network of cars as one supercomputing assistant, which would send traffic data directly to your smartphones so you can avoid jams. It’ll use that data to inform delivery drivers where parking spots are available or guide emergency responders to faster routes.

Instead of you asking an assistant for data, Ford's solution would ostensibly anticipate your needs and use an ecosystem of data to give you the knowledge you need while you drive — until, it hopes, driving becomes totally automated.

For now, Ford is partnering with Waze to implement voice commands on its Sync 3 devices, but this hands-free assistant is limited compared to Google Assistant/Alexa: don’t expect to control smart home appliances through Waze just yet.

Nvidia and Mercedes-Benz announced a partnership on January 9 for MBUX, a personalized, a learning AI meant to anticipate your needs. Housed inside a zero-lag touch screen with 3D animations, the MBUX AI is voice activated by the phrase “Hey Mercedes”. 

On the CES stage, the Nvidia and Mercedes teams made some bold claims about their AI: MBUX will save and suggest your favorite music or destinations automatically as you drive; it understands the context of colloquial expressions like “can I wear my flip-flops tomorrow?” in 23 different languages; and the AI will track eye and head movement and arm gestures, so the car can tell if you’re not looking at a pedestrian in the street, or understand if you point at a specific window and say to open it. 

Available on Honda, Hyundai, all the GM brands, and many other car brands, Android Auto has always been able to take simple voice commands for checking directions or opening apps. 

But this week at CES, Google’s Android team announced they would be taking the Auto past this Siri-level capability into full-blown Google Assistant functionality. You’ll be able to control your smart home remotely from your car; conversely, you’ll have the ability to lock your car remotely or check fuel levels through an Assistant-enabled app, if your car company allows Google that level of access. 

In a blog post, Google teased some other ways you’ll be able to take full advantage of the voice-control functionality, such as placing Starbucks orders or reserving a parking place through SpotHero. It evidently hopes to create a shopping ecosystem for bored drivers sitting in traffic, and are actively shopping for name partners to help the program take off.

Some car companies have their own Bluetooth-enabled voice command suites in the cars, nixing the need for built-in Google or Amazon assistant support. But some companies decided to partner up anyway, just to make their customers’ lives easier outside of their cars.

Kia announced at CES that it would partner with Google to make select 2018 Kia cars accessible through all Google Assistant apps. The UVO telematics system already lets drivers make calls or pull up directions by voice commands. But with Google, drivers can control their engines, electric charging station, headlights, horn and locks remotely, even from miles away.

Google also helped Hyundai to release this same Assistant functionality for its vehicles, and we’ve previously speculated that it’ll offer the same suite of features to any Android Auto partner that’s interested.

Unfortunately, even if voice controls and fancy AI assistants sound appealing for your daily commute, you may not be due to buy a new car for years, and some of this tech is a ways off, or could be associated with a brand of car you’re just not interested in.

For people looking for an immediate solution, Anker announced the Roav Viva Bluetooth charging kit at CES this week. This device plugs into your 12-Volt power point in your car, and can charge your phone and generate audio streams. Most importantly, it comes equipped with the full Amazon Alexa package, so you can control your smart home through it. 

Instead of spending tens of thousands on a car, the Roav Viva will only set you back $50 (about £40 / AU$65), and you can pre-order it now. 

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