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Help or hindrance? The voice-activated personal assistants in cars are here to stay

By Maxine Ashford | July 8, 2024

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Built-in personal assistants in cars are getting more advanced by the day and can now help with all manner of tasks.

Help or hindrance? The voice-activated personal assistants in cars are here to stay

Built-in personal assistants in cars are getting more advanced by the day and can now help with all manner of tasks. Long gone are the times when I asked my car’s voice activated assistant to plot a route to Brecon only to discover the final destination was mapped in as Bournemouth!

Present systems are far more advanced and with a variety of cars at our disposal, we explored the depth of knowledge these artificial systems possess and how it can be integrated into modern day driving needs.

The likes of VW, DS and Peugeot are introducing the highly innovative ChatGPT to their models, which brings with it conversation-like technology. We had a chance to test out an early-prototype version in a Peugeot E-3008 and it could answer all manner of questions about historical events, what tourist attractions can be found in each city etc, but this was a system that hadn’t been updated since 2002, so it had no idea what the weather forecast was for tomorrow. Obviously, that will all change though as this was an early example.

A couple of back-to-back drives in VW models allowed us to explore their set-up which is activated by saying Hello Volkswagen or Hello Ida.

You should be able to say “Cool my feet” to get the air con directed towards the lower part of the car. Unfortunately, the response was: “Call contact – please connect a phone via Bluetooth first” which isn’t ideal.

However, in the new VW Passat, the response was better with the AC being directed towards the driver‘s feet using the same “Cool my feet” instruction. 

This system could also tell the temperature and time, although when asked to open the sunroof, the response was “Um, I’m not sure. Sorry.” Very polite even if the outcome was not that successful.

And, as this was immediately after England’s dramatic win in the footie against Slovakia, I had to ask some telling sporting questions. I asked Ida if England were a good football team. The first time the answer was quite uninformative, depending on your point of view, with an: “It is not known at this point if England are a good football time”. 

But we persevered and asked the question a couple more times when the answers were far more comprehensive and made reference to ChatGPT. The answer was: “According to Chat GPT, yes England are a strong football team” and “According to ChatGPT, England are considered one of the top football teams in the world.”

The Kia Niro was also a little hit and miss. While it could tell me the time and temperature in London, Venice and Rome, when asked to plot a navigational route to Birmingham, it responded with “Do you want to be guided to this place” When we said “Yes” nothing happened.

And when we asked it to turn on the heated steering wheel or close the sunroof, it was met with a “Sorry, this feature is not supported” answer.

When the Range Rover Sport was asked how far away is London, it replied “Sorry I missed that”. It missed it three more times!

It could however turn on the heated seats, along with increasing and lowering the temperature.

The Lexus system, brought to life with the “Hey Lexus” wake-up. call, was having a bit of a bad day too. When asked what the time was, what the temperature is, and how long it would take to drive to London, the response was: “Sorry, I’m having trouble understanding you.”

It could find different radio stations and turn the seat heaters to high though.

The all-new Skoda Kodiaq could help with adjusting the temperature, and turning off the seat heaters, but when asked to open the sunroof, replied; “Oh, my developers didn’t teach me that.”

Similarly “Sorry, I don’t know how to do that yet” was the response when asked if it was due to rain in London tomorrow.

When asked its name, it said: “That’s something I still need to learn” and when asked for a joke, it was clearly in a thoughtful mood as it explained: “Not everything has to make sense. All it has to be is fun”.

When asked again Laura (Skoda’s voice assistant with a man’s voice) replied: “I couldn’t work out how to fasten my seatbelt, then it clicked.”

My all-time favourite though has to be the Mercedes set-up which not only works well, but seems to have a sense of humour.

It’s activated by saying ‘Hey Mercedes”, but will respond to “Hey Merce” too. This copes exceptionally well with all the basics, such as making a call from a contact list, navigating to a destination, but during a three-hour traffic jam (how I love the M25) I had the opportunity to explore further. This is how our conversation went.

Me: Shut sunroof blinds

Mercedes: Closing roller sun blinds. You’re right, it’s too bright out there.

Me: Sing me a song.

Mercedes: The radio will do a way better job than me.

Me: Again, sing me a song.

Mercedes: Let’s leave that to the professionals.

Me: How old are you?

Mercedes: Young, old it’s all relative (first answer)

Mercedes: I am timeless (second answer)

Mercedes: You should know that women don’t talk about their age (third and best answer)

Me: What’s your name?

Mercedes: I am Mercedes. My name is Mercedes.

Me: Are you a man?

Mercedes: Mercedes is a girl’s name.

Me: Tell me a joke.

Mercedes: What vegetable do sailors hate the most? Leeks.

Me: Tell me another.

Mercedes: Why was 6 scared of 7? Because 7,8 9.

Of course, the rapid fire Q&A with my new bestie Mercedes were to see how personable the voice assistants can be and this one was quite entertaining, especially as the answers differed if the questions were repeated several times.

All in all, across the models tested the responses differed considerably. But these systems, similarly to most things technical, are making huge advances all the time.

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