Can Voice Assistants Open On-Board Revenue Flood Gates?

Nomi is reputed to be one of the world’s most adorable in-vehicle virtual assistant.

Whether you think that’s a good thing depends to a great extent on where you grew up. Nomi is part of the HMI for the NIO line of BEVs, sold in China since 2017. With the driver’s permission, it can recognize patterns in behavior and respond in a variety of ways. It has a cartoony human face and speaks in a high voice.

However, when NIO put out an eight-minute video illustrating how the car recognized and responded to a couple’s loss of their cat, western journalists responded with snark. The assistant was too cutesy, they said, and quite creepy.

Yet Chinese car owners love it. There’s even an independent aftermarket for Nomi accessories like hats and cat ears to decorate the device.

“China is a lot more open with data and has a different frame of mind. Western audiences may not be as comfortable as an East Asian audience with the system’s personalization features,” says JoAnn Yamani, NIO’s director of marketing and brand communications.

“We are definitely not one size fits all,” Yamani adds. While the automaker plans to expand beyond China, it’s looking first at cultures that will appreciate its unique offering. Still, as automakers grapple with creating a differentiated, personalized experience, Nomi serves as a dramatic illustration of how to accomplish it.

Talk, not touch

While voice interfaces have been around for a decade, carmakers are looking for more robust implementations that can bring the versatility of smart home devices into the car. Safety is a primary consideration, since speaking a command can be less distracting that looking at a touchscreen. Yet smart, voice-powered assistants’ potential to orchestrate a variety of services to answer a driver’s request could help automakers offer a branded, differentiated customer experience.

Amazon Alexa has made serious inroads into the car. In just one example, last autumn, General Motors announced it would work with Google to provide an embedded voice assistant, embedded navigation and in-vehicle applications to compatible Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles beginning in 2021. GM’s press release said this was the first step to a re-envisioning of the in-vehicle customer experience. A company spokesperson said GM had nothing new to report since then.

One advantage of enabling Alexa Auto, as well as Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, is people’s familiarity and comfort with these services via their phones or home devices. Another is being able to offer an easy transition from the home to the car. Telenav has partnered with Amazon Alexa for more than a year and recently announced the 2.0 version of its integration with the Alexa Auto SDK, says enabling the assistant to expand the opportunities for consumers to have a single integrated voice service available at home, on mobile and in the vehicle.

Satish Kumar, head of product for Telenav, says marrying Amazon Alexa’s expertise in voice with Telenav’s experience in automotive lets the partners drive specific sets of requirements in the car to expand the services available. Once a voice request comes into the car’s system via Alexa, Telenav routes the request to the correct service. For example, Alexa may be the best service to find a restaurant, but it would make more sense for the camaker to answer a request for maintenance or service.

There are other domains that the automaker might want to control, Kumar notes, for example, e-commerce. “Google or Amazon would definitely be interested but it may be in the OEM’s interest to hold onto that request.”

A full staff in the car

The vision of Cerence, the automotive voice company spun out of Nuance, is that an automaker may enable multiple assistants, according to Christophe Couvreur, head of product. Say, for example, someone owns a Mercedes with MBUX, uses an iPhone and has Alexa at home.

“You don’t have to remember what Siri does,” Couvreur says. “You can just ask the question.” Behind the scenes, there needs to be intelligence about what the car knows and can do and what it does not know how to do, so that it can route requests to the right device or service.

Houndify’s platform, part of MBUX, has enabled voice access to a wide variety of information sources, including Here, Expedia, Yelp and AccuWeather. These partnerships give automakers access to multiple providers without having to forge individual agreements with each one, according to vice-president and general manager Katie McMahon.

For example, thanks to Houndify’s most recent partner, EventSeeker, a driver could theoretically ask the car, “What’s going on around here tonight?” Receiving an answer from Houndify/EventSeeker, he could then choose an event, order tickets through the car’s ecommerce interface, and then tell the car to navigate to the venue.

Brand struggles

This strategy of enabling virtual assistants like Siri or Alexa has the danger of embedding these tech brands more firmly in users’ minds and hearts, potentially at the expense of the automotive brand.

McMahon says that, because her platform provides access to third parties, the automaker won’t have to share its data with them. However, Kumar thinks the jury is still out but consumer preference must rule. “Users want choice. Users who have Alexa at home may want to carry it to car. Another set of users may prefer to bring Google into the car. Being able to enable choice is one reason OEMs are open to it.” Couvreur says: “We believe it will not be dominated by a single assistant that does everything. Our vision is you will work with multiple assistants.”

So, automakers may differentiate by how well whatever blend of technologies and services they enable works to satisfy consumers’ demands. They could also consider putting creepy cartoon characters on the dashboard!

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