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Don’t ever push the voice button on a new car.

If you don’t have a phone hooked up using a USB cable, it’s a little embarrassing.

The “voice assistance” enabled on most cars these days, from nearly every automaker, is about seven years out of date. You can move to the next track for the current song, walk through a complex decision tree to get directions (usually in a way that requires you to spell out the exact street names), and maybe activate the Bluetooth connection, if you’re lucky. That’s it. An entire button on most new cars that basically does something you could do way back in 2010? Not good.

I know this because I first started testing cars around 2010, and the buttons worked the same way. They can’t come close to anything related to AI, don’t answer questions, can’t understand simple navigation requests, and are basically ornamental now that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have become so common. The problem, of course, is that CarPlay and Android Auto haven’t really changed that much in the past two years, so progress on voice assistants in cars, when you think about the market as a whole, has stalled out…or is at least waiting for Apple and Google to get busy with innovations that go beyond adding a few more commands and an app or two.


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Don’t get me wrong, I like how the phone bots work. Once you connect up an iPhone or a Google Pixel phone, for example, you can control your music, get directions, and do a lot more than you can with the built-in car assistant. And this will improve dramatically now that so many cars support the two main players in car telematics. At the same time, is that what we really want?

Car companies are massive enough to do a lot of the in-car adaptive intelligence themselves, and it could be far better if Kia or Audi offered a custom bot that works directly with the car systems. “Audi, what’s the air pressure on my left rear tire” doesn’t work today, but it should. I’d like to talk in detail about my maintenance schedule with a Ford truck and have the vehicle remind me to do oil changes, not just because an oil change is on my schedule but because it is able to check the actual oil quality — and maybe suggest getting an oil change a little sooner since I’ve been towing so much.

Bots need to become more customized, not more generic. I’d like a bot that’s specific to my sporty muscle car and talks like a race-car driver. In an SUV, maybe the bot is more focused on child safety and can even talk to the kids in the backseat. I feel speech innovation from the automakers has fallen behind as Apple and Google have slowly taken their place as the “brains” of the car.

Of course, some brands are avoiding this trap. BMW plans to integrate cars more closely into the smart home of the future, working with SmartThings. I really like what Ford is doing with apps that can locate a parking spot and help you pay for it. Obviously, Tesla is not relying too much on Apple or Android for the automation inside the car.

And yet — when it comes to voice — this is becoming a problem. The answer to the question “what’s new on this 2017 vehicle?” has become “CarPlay and Android Auto support” way too often. It’s time to start assuming every car has those options, like a back-up camera and blindspot monitoring, and move on. Automakers need to develop custom bots that do way more than Siri and the Google Assistant, that tie into the car systems and provide an obvious differentiator.

Audi car assistant with AI, I’m hoping to test you out soon.

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