What drivers should know about voice assistants in the car

With Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, some things can be controlled in the car by voice. Is that helpful or mainly a gimmick?

A few words are enough and the music gets louder. Or you can jump to the next song with a casual command. And one sentence is enough to get the navigation system on course. Voice control in the car should support the person behind the wheel and make driving safer.

Which voice assistants are there for cars?

The voice assistant Siri is in Apple’s iPhones and the Google Assistant in smartphones with Android. The latter is also part of Android Auto on some vehicles. And via the Bluetooth adapter Echo Auto (around 60 euros), Amazon connects its Alexa in the vehicle to smartphones.

An active internet connection is important for all assistants. Siri and Echo Auto must always be online, but the Google Assistant continues to work even if there are short dead spots.

Driving without distraction

But what do you do with voice assistants in the car? “They are suitable as assistance systems, since they are less distracting to the driver than manual operation, and they are more convenient,” says Nathalie Teer from the IT industry association Bitkom. Because functions can be controlled by voice without looking at the display or touching a button.

War of the buttons: if you adjust the volume not with your hands but with voice commands, you are less distracted.

And what do you need? “A smartphone in the car is sufficient for this, ideally when it is connected to the speakers in the car with Bluetooth or a cable,” explains Teer. A good holder for the cell phone is also crucial. It should not be attached too far away from the driver because of possible interference.

If voice commands are not recognized immediately, for example because of driving noises, a second attempt often helps, but sometimes just parking. Under no circumstances should operating problems with the assistants distract you from driving, warns Teer. That would be counterproductive. After all, the helpers are there so that you can concentrate better on the traffic.

Basically, the smartphone should be linked to the car radio. This allows the driver to communicate with the device via the hands-free system, for example. Alternative: “With high-quality headsets, drivers can also operate the voice assistant,” says Zeitler.

Hands on the wheel: if you control functions in the car with voice commands, you usually drive more safely

Voice assistants in newer cars often come from the factory

With Apple Carplay or Android Auto, newer vehicles often offer a stronger integration of smartphones into the car. Means: If you call up certain apps on the phone, they can also be seen and controlled on the vehicle display, which further simplifies operation. “The assistants are helpful and recommendable for all drivers,” says Nathalie Teer. Their car-related use can be implemented quickly and, on top of that, cheap.

Amazon Alexa is integrated in newer vehicles from BMW, as well as in cars from Seat. Mercedes vehicles can do some tasks with the help of their own Mbux system with “Hey Mercedes”. Mbux is available as an option and costs over 1000 euros extra in the package for the A-Class, for example.

Which system is right for me?

Such assistants are often used by those drivers who also control devices with voice at home, says Winkler. “Depending on the manufacturer, the integration of the voice assistant is still in its infancy.” Some only offer a connection via smartphone, others are already deeply integrated systems with which other vehicle functions can be operated.

“In the future, voice assistants will be more intelligent and be able to do more tasks,” says Winkler. “To do this, the systems have to be merged with the vehicle.” Adjustment is also important because many expect the same voice control in the car as on their smartphone.

With Apple Carplay, but also with Android Auto, some apps are mirrored on the car display. That makes the operation easier

Before deciding on a system, it is worth trying out different ones, depending on your own smartphone and its operating system, advises car electronics specialist Michael Zeitler, who runs a specialist retailer in Cologne. “It is advantageous if the voice control can be activated with a button.” Then it is not called up accidentally.

Voice assistants in the car are becoming increasingly popular

Regardless of whether it is about playing or streaming music, about appointments in the calendar, phone calls, navigation or a note function: voice assistants in the car are becoming more popular. In a 2019 study by the Capgemini Research Institute, almost half (49 percent) of those surveyed stated that they already use a voice assistant in the vehicle, of which a good three-quarters (77 percent) said they used music.

For Markus Winkler, automotive expert at the management consultancy Capgemini, the decisive factor for voice assistants is how strongly the system is integrated into the vehicle and its digital ecosystem. “When buying a car, voice assistants initially play a subordinate role; this only becomes evident in everyday operation,” he says.

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