BMW’s Voice System Will Let You Give Your Car a Nickname

If you picture a car with a pet name, you’re likely to think of a hand-me-down Volvo or a faithful old Subaru but starting next year, owners of sleek, new BMWs will be able to name their rides and even carry on a conversation with them through a natural-language interface.

BMW’s Intelligent Personal Assistant is the industry’s latest attempt to let drivers access vehicle settings, features and information using ordinary phrases. The first time it’s activated, it will respond to the rather impersonal greeting, “Hey, BMW”. Then the driver will be able to give the system a name of their own choosing.

While voice-controlled assistants such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa have taken homes by storm, it’s arguably more important to be able to talk to a computer while driving than when you don’t feel like getting off the couch to turn on a lamp. BMW is going all-in on this concept. The Assistant is designed to respond to impromptu comments like “I feel cold” rather than scripted commands like “increase interior temperature”. Other automakers, including Mercedes and Cadillac, are also trying to take advantage of improved artificial intelligence that’s better equipped to understand ordinary speech.

The feature will allow drivers to control creature-comforts in the cabin, including modes that combine things like lighting, music type and sunroof settings. BMW says its system will even make casual conversation. (BMW’s example: “Hey, BMW, what’s the meaning of life?”)

The system will tap into real-time information about the car’s operation. Drivers will be able do things like check the oil level, ask if there are any engine warnings, and schedule a service appointment. The Assistant will also answer questions about how to use the car’s features, which could come in handy when it’s time to turn on the high beams and there’s nowhere to pull over and read the manual.

The Assistant can also be integrated with Microsoft Office 365 and Skype for Business, so it can join conference calls at the drivers’ request and read their email through the audio system. Future capabilities, coming via over-the-air updates, will include fuel-saving driving tips (if you’d like a voice in your car telling you how to drive) and advance warnings about things like low tire pressure.

The system will run on BMW Operating System 7.0 and BMW’s Open Mobility Cloud. Using the digital customer profile, BMW ID, its machine-learning platform is designed to continuously learn each driver’s preferences and memorize the directions to frequent destinations, so they can say things like “Take me home.” Because it’s cloud-based, owners will be able to take the Assistant with them and use it on smartphones and home voice-assistants, BMW says.

BMW plans to roll out the Intelligent Personal Assistant in March 2019 in Germany, the US, the UK Japan, and several other countries, then in China in May. Also in March, it will be available via an over-the-air software update to existing X5, Z4 and 8-Series models that have OS 7.0. In addition, customers pre-ordering the next-generation 2019 3-Series starting in November 2018 will be able to request the feature and get it included for three years.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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