Man and machine: it's good to talk

How will voice-activated virtual assistants change the way we use our connected cars?

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In the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey astronauts talk naturally with Hal, the sentient computer that controls the spaceship as it speeds towards Jupiter, but today the world of artificial intelligence is much closer to home. Ford owners will soon be able to chat to Alexa – Amazon's voice assistant – while they are on a mission to do the weekly shop and other more down-to-earth tasks.

Man and machine: it's good to talk 01
Man and machine: it's good to talk 01

Artificial intelligence – especially using hands-free voice control – is going to revolutionise the way we drive and use our cars. AI, after all, underpins the automated car ecosystem. “We believe voice is the future, and this is particularly true in cars,” says Steve Rabuchin, vice president of Amazon Alexa. “The ability to use your voice to control your smart home, access entertainment, manage to-do lists and more makes for an extraordinary driving experience.”

The intelligent Internet of Things
The car will become yet another device as part of the Internet of Things. In other words, Alexa will help drivers connect to their smart home functions. On the school run and forgot to turn off the oven? No problem. Ask Alexa. Need to turn the lights off? Or on? Who you gonna call? Why, Alexa, of course, who may also use GPS to locate where you are and open the garage doors for your return... 

The reverse is also true. While sitting at home with Amazon Echo you will be able to interact with your car. On a cold day you might want to start it up remotely to warm those seats and de-ice the windscreen. Or it may turn on by itself if you leave at the same time every day. Vehicle information is available 24/7. Is the petrol tank full? Is the battery charged? If you have Pirelli Connesso tyres, for example, your virtual assistant may warn you that the air pressure is low and, if necessary, book a visit from a mobile tyre replacement team. Or drive off to the garage by itself...

It's not just Alexa who will be keeping an eye on things. Owners of Apple Cars will pass the time of day with Siri while those in vehicles using the Microsoft platform may engage the services of Cortana. In Honda's new NeuV (as in New Electric Urban Vehicle) concept car, the calming character with whom you will start to share your life will be called Hana.

Artificial emotions
Hana – or the Honda Automated Network Assistant – takes AI to the next level. Instead of initiating actions according to predetermined parameters, this fusion of artificial intelligence, robotics and Big Data learns from the driver's behaviour. An integral part of the NeuV concept car, it uses an “emotion engine” to assist the driver. 

Computers and emotions are not normally synonymous. In this case Hana uses input from cameras and sensors that detect a driver's “emotions” using facial-recognition software and then, based on the driver's past decisions in similar situations, makes new choices and recommendations. Feel down in the dumps and Hana might select an upbeat tune on the sound system. A few yawns and Hana may order a click-and-collect coffee at the nearest service station or softly coo, “Sit back and relax, I'll take over the driving from here...” 

The NeuV is part of Honda's so-called Cooperative Mobility Ecosystem. The grand vision is to create a future in which vehicles communicate with each other and also the infrastructure to avoid accidents and congestion. Honda's “Safe Swarm” concept is analogous in its behaviour with that of a school of fish – and relies on bio-mimicry to help vehicles act co-operatively and hence protectively.

“The autonomous age has dawned, and Honda, like all automakers, is working to refine and advance this technology to achieve a collision-free society by 2040,” says Frank Paluch, president, Honda R&D Americas. “Honda will work with others to create an environment in which road conditions are predicted, managed and collisions avoided using vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications and drawing upon Big Data and artificial intelligence.”

Artificial intelligence and profits
There's more. The NeuV – along with many of the next generation of autonomous cars – will not only enhance the driving experience of the owner but also be happy to employ its artificial intelligence to go off to work by itself when not in use. And that's handy given private vehicles sit idle for 96 per cent of the time. 

It could become an Uber-style ride-sharing unit or delivery vehicle and, while sitting on your drive, might even sell energy back to the national grid. “We designed NeuV to become more valuable to the owner by optimising and monetising the vehicle's down time,” explains Michael Tsay, principal designer, Honda R&D Americas.

With their unshakable calm and ability to learn, Alexa and Hana, it seems, are destined to become indispensable parts of our lives – an everyday life coach, travel companion, chauffeur, route planner and trusted confidante. Some behavioural scientists have even wondered if we may forget we're talking to a machine that's processing ones and zeros and forge very close relationships indeed. 

In the romantic sci-fi drama Her, the star, Joaquin Phoenix, falls for an intelligent computer operating system called Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson. The artificial intelligence of Alexa and Hana is becoming more sophisticated by the second and ever more human-like, but it'll be a while before it replaces the real thing.