Meet your new virtual assistant: The AI in your car


(NEW YORK) — The artificially intelligent computer KITT from Knight Rider could do it all — drive solo, speak to humans, land quips and fight crime. It was sentient, funny and self-aware. KITT was a futuristic — but fictional — TV character that had Americans in awe.

There are no KITTS in real life yet. There are, however, vehicles that can independently change lanes and maneuver in traffic. Some automakers are pushing the limits even more — evolving conveyances into personal assistants that can keep tabs on our daily routines and make conversation on those lonely and tiresome drives home.

This is the future: Your vehicle’s AI calling into work meetings when you’re running late. Offering restaurant recommendations in foreign locales. Listening to you vent about life and offering reassuring adages to get you through the day.

“We’re enhancing the layers of communication between the MBUX virtual assistant and our customers … it’s our vision of the hyper-personalized experience inside the car,” Andreas Biehl, head of user interaction concepts for Mercedes-Benz AG, told ABC News. “Our AI system — our ‘brain’ — can learn scenarios … and use that to make the right suggestions.”

He added, “We see this as a must-have experience for our customers.”

Mercedes unveiled the generative AI virtual assistant earlier this year in Las Vegas. Models that run on the upcoming MB.OS platform, such as the Concept CLA Class, will include this advanced tech, which the company calls “the most human-like interface with a Mercedes-Benz yet.”

The virtual assistant, now seen on screen via a “living” star avatar and 3D graphics, can even express four personality traits (natural, predictive, personal and empathetic) and emotions ranging from excited to sensitive, according to Mercedes. Drivers no longer have to prompt the assistant by saying “Hey Mercedes” in the cabin; the car will engage with the driver automatically and can even recognize the driver’s voice, according to Biehl.

If the MB.OS system senses that you’re stressed or unhappy — either from your tone or driving style — it may cut the conversation short or start a seat massage to relax you.

“The virtual assistant is always listening,” said Biehl. “But we have to be very careful we’re not catching the wrong things. We want to be there when we are needed.”

German automaker Volkswagen is in the process of integrating ChatGPT into its vehicles’ IDA voice assistant, which can give drivers additional information beyond the voice assistant’s current capabilities: controlling the infotainment, navigation and air conditioning.

“Enriching conversations, clearing up questions, receiving vehicle-specific information … this is part of its continuously expanding capabilities,” a company spokesperson told ABC News. “Volkswagen always strives to offer the latest technology and will continue to do so in the future.”

The spokesperson gave an example of how ChatGPT could improve the user experience: “You ask your car to find you a Thai restaurant. The car then lists numerous nearby places. You then decide you are going to cook a meal yourself so ask the car for the ingredients that are in a Thai Green Curry. ChatGPT will look that up, and you can then ask where you can buy those ingredients.”

Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan, questioned why automakers are fixated on AI driving systems.

“Car companies are trying to differentiate themselves not on styling, not on reliability, but on features that sometimes seem more like gadgets,” he told ABC News. “Automakers think consumers are enamored with this technology. They will need to find a way to add these driver-assistance features in way that doesn’t feel like we’re giving up control.”

He argued there may be “tremendous backlash” against the idea that vehicles can act like a human passenger.

“A lot of people don’t want their car or any machine to know that much about them,” Gordon said. “I predict 9 out of 10 consumers will turn it off.”

Biehl noted that customers can disable the MBUX virtual assistant.

“Users will have full control of this,” he said. “They can always opt out.”

Kelly Funkhouser, associate director of vehicle technology at Consumer Reports, said some drivers may not be alarmed to learn that their vehicles are spying on their conversations.

“Our devices are already listening — Alexa, our Google assistants — they’re waiting to hear that ‘wakeup’ word,” she told ABC News. Companies like Mercedes “must believe there’s a benefit to consumers,” she added.

Automakers, however, have to address the larger issue: So few customers actually utilize the voice commands.

“Historically those voice commands haven’t been very good,” Funkhouser said. “The systems have definitely improved in the past several years but they’re still not perfect. Telling your car to change the heat or radio tends to annoy drivers. You have to pause [what you’re doing] to interact with the AI. It’s easier to use 1 or 2 buttons.”

Funkhouser pointed out that advancements in AI assistants come as automakers replace buttons and knobs with giant screens that can be confusing to navigate, especially while driving.

“The HMI — human machine interface — is becoming more complicated,” she said. “Having a voice assistant is not a good solution to solving the problem of distracting controls and displays. There’s a bit of consumer pushback to bring back buttons.”

Biehl, of Mercedes, said the company’s new voice assistant is an “evolutionary step” of an already “successful product in the market.”

“There’s more human-like behavior and personality traits … the driver can talk to assistant and the assistant can react in an adequate way,” he said. “The assistant makes the life of our customers easier.”

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.