KITT is no longer a fantasy: Assessing the rise in infotainment for connected cars

Back in 1982, when intelligent assistant KITT from the hit TV show Knight Rider first hit our screens, the most sophisticated info-entertainment tech inside your car was probably a radio and cassette deck.

We’ve come a long way in the past 35 years. According to research firm Gartner, by 2020 there will be 250 million connected cars on the world’s roads. But just how far off are we from having our own KITTs installed in those connected vehicles?

KITT was able to drive as well as provide Michael Knight with all the information he needed through a voice interface. While we’ll undoubtedly find autonomous vehicles hitting our roads en masse sometime soon, the immediate future will see more and more car manufacturers pre-installing increasingly sophisticated intelligent assistant software. Rather than commenting on full-blown self-driving vehicles, this article aims to look at the features of those in-car intelligent assistants that are designed to make the driver’s life easier, safer and more enjoyable.

This year has already seen a spate of announcements from carmakers who have been clamouring to sign up intelligent assistants. Amongst the deals being made, Microsoft will supply Cortana to cars made by BMW and Nissan, Ford has reached a deal with Amazon to equip some of its vehicles with Alexa, while Hyundai has announced that it will make its cars partially voice controlled using Google Assistant. Toyota has announced a concept car that features its own intelligent assistant called Yui too.

My company, Sherpa, has also recently reached an agreement with a major car manufacturer to install our intelligent assistant into their connected cars.

So what kind of functionality will this AI-powered software have, and what tasks can we expect it to be able to carry out?

While some manufacturers already have smartphone apps and in-built touch screen functionality, it’s clear that voice control will be the major player. The adoption of voice in other sectors – such as office environments – is more intrusive, but the hermetic space of the car makes it the perfect place to speak to your virtual assistant and the added bonus of creating safer driving experiences further enhances the likelihood of mass adoption.

It is however important to point out that voice recognition, although now highly advanced in the English language, still only offers varying support for other languages. Although this is coming, it’s a major factor to take into consideration for car manufacturers.

As for the tasks we should expect our assistants to perform, the limits are really only in our imaginations. In general terms, a dedicated automotive assistant that has a deep understanding of your car and your driving-related activity will undoubtedly mitigate distraction and enhance the overall driving experience.

An in-car intelligent assistant should be able to answer not only any question a driver has about their vehicle, but also queries about the environment surrounding it, as well as being able to provide information and recommendations to the occupants.

It could help schedule a service when needed or tell the driver about tyre wear, for example. It would also allow drivers to the ability to start their car from a distance, turn on the heating (no more scraping ice on those frosty mornings!), adjust air conditioning, lock the vehicle doors – and check they’re locked, or open your garage door.

As well as providing directions and traffic updates – something we now take for granted – the in-car assistant would inform about places of interest nearby, find and book a table at a restaurant, tell you about good nearby parking, or let attendees know if you’re running later for a meeting.

On top of carrying out a variety of tasks, the assistant will also learn from your actions and interests, being able to recommend restaurants that serve food you like, or play music by your preferred artists. And with the inevitable arrival of autonomous cars, the automotive assistant will eventually provide a full-blown info-entertainment experience.

“In the very long play we can see vehicles becoming a real entertainment space – an extension of people’s lounges,” says Jack Wetherill, a tech analyst at Futuresource Consulting. “The real endgame is we all put our feet up and watch movies, the digital assistant does the driving.”

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