Updated May 8, 2022 - Technology

How better voice technology is making cars safer

Illustration of a car with a brain at the top.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Our cars have always been our companions, but now, thanks to the integration of new digital voice assistants like Amazon's Alexa, they're finally able to understand us better.

Why it matters: The arrival of more reliable voice technology is revolutionizing the in-car experience, giving drivers hands-free access to more features and apps so they don't have to fumble with buttons or screens while driving.

  • Now a driver can say, "Alexa, I'm cold," and the car will adjust the temperature.
  • Or, "Alexa, take me to the nearest Starbucks," and the car will navigate there.

Flashback: Until a couple of years ago, voice commands in cars didn't work very well.

  • Drivers had to use stilted, preset phrases to navigate a series of menus: Navigation. Destination address. City. Street. Number.
  • None of it was intuitive, the systems were balky, and the episode usually ended in frustration.
  • Cars didn't have the memory and computing power to handle much more.

Four big technology advancements have led to a recent breakthrough in voice technology, which, in turn, is making cars safer.

  1. Cloud computing has arrived. Instead of the car crunching data locally, commands are processed by remote, cloud-based systems and then beamed back to the vehicle. 5G connections will help eliminate the potential lag that has made reliance on distant clusters of computers problematic.
  2. Cars' own computers are more sophisticated. Dozens of electronic control units under the hood have been replaced by centralized systems linked to the cloud. But even when the cellular signal is weak, cars have enough edge computing power to process requests.
  3. Natural language processing has improved. Advancements in AI and machine learning allow the car to understand not only what the driver said, but also the intent, and respond accordingly. Plus, the vehicle can remember what to do next time.
  4. Acoustics are better. Technology can filter out ambient noise in the car, such as air vents, an open sunroof or tire noise, to focus on the human voice.

Editor's note: This story originally published on May 5.

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