BMW & Alibaba Partner to Bring Tmall Genie to Select Vehicles

At CES this week in Las Vegas Alibaba and BMW announced a new partnership that will bring the e-commerce giant’s Tmall Genie voice assistant technology to select vehicles in China.

The voice assistant will be available in-car to BMW customers in China by the end of 2019, opening up a variety of entertainment and shopping options for BMW drivers on the road.

For example, BMW customers in China can use Tmall Genie to place online orders, view cinema listings, listen to playlists or check the weather at their destination.

Customers can access all information the Tmall Genie has via audio output, and this can also be displayed in text and image form on the BMW Display Screen.

This latest announcement by the German auto giant follows the company’s integration of BMW Connected into Alibaba’s Chinese ecosystem.

That integration allows BMW customers who have a Tmall Genie-compatible device at home to operate vehicle functions and to call up appointments saved in the BMW Connected mobility agenda.

“China is a very unique market with consumers’ demands that are different from other markets. First of all, Chinese consumers are very digital savvy and are used to do everything on their fingertips; and secondly, they are spending more and more times on the road each day,” Miffy Chen, head of Alibaba A.I. Labs, told TU-Automotive in an email.

Chen explained Chinese consumers wanted to be able to use their time in the car to perform other tasks, such as to shop and place orders, consume content, check on weather and even flip on the air conditioner before they arrive at home.

“It requires both the technology and access to an ecosystem that covers all aspect of consumer life to make the experience truly personalized and user friendly,” Chen noted.

A joint release noted a smartphone or other connected mobile device is not required to use the intelligent voice assistant in-car, as all BMW models come with an embedded SIM card, which enables seamless integration and permanent online availability.

“The costs of development of the artificial intelligence behind voice assistants is significant and moving into a market with foreign language will add to these costs,” Sam Barker, senior analyst with Juniper Research, told TU-Automotive.

He explained BMW’s partnership with Alibaba to include their established voice assistant into their vehicle models is a move designed to reduce these costs.

As the vehicle becomes more connected to other areas of the Internet of Things — namely the Chinese smart home market — having the choice to use an established digital voice assistant in China further reduces the costs of integrating BMW services into other areas.

“First and foremost, the nature of the automotive market in China will necessitate new approaches from automotive OEMs,” Barker noted.

He said the demand for vehicles is continuing to fuel vehicle sales in the market — notably new models — as a used vehicle market is not as developed as it is in countries such as the US.

Additionally, China has a large addressable market of potential vehicle owners, therefore a number of foreign automotive OEMs are trying to enter the market to capitalize on this.

Barker predicted that over the next five years, the level of connectivity in vehicles is going to increase.

“Automotive OEMs will be looking to differentiate themselves from competitors through adding functionality that makes operating the vehicle on a day-to-day basis more convenient,” he said.

This means these digital voice assistants will need to be integrated further into the vehicles operation and the smart home markets to provide services that span both the automotive sector and the wider Internet of Things.

In September 2018, Alibaba announced it was upgrading Tmall Genie for Volvo cars, allowing an enhanced control of the driver’s home environment, such as heating, air-con and humidity, while on the move. Alibaba had signed a deal with Daimler, Audi and Volvo to operate the onboard system last June.

— Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.

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