Forget Google and Alexa - Mercedes is rolling out its slick MBUX system in each new model that comes to market and, well, voice-activated technology has never looked quite so sophisticated...
Words by Erin Baker, Editorial Director at Auto-Trader
Imagine a world in which you don’t just say “Hey, Mercedes, play songs by Mabel” while driving along, but “Hey, Mercedes, find me an Asian restaurant in Kensington, but not sushi, which has a vegan menu. Book me a table for two now and take me there.” It’s not the future; this is here, now, albeit not in the UK quite yet. It won’t be long though.
This is the future of voice command, and it’s about to become as important to car makers as the cars themselves. Why? Mercedes predicts that the total value of voice-activated purchases made via smart speakers such as Amazon Alexa, Siri or in-car devices will touch $40bn by 2022 – that’s just two years away. In other words, it’s not inconceivable that the value of stuff bought by drivers while in cars will exceed the value of all the cars bought. No wonder brands like Mercedes are finding ways to facilitate this.
Right now, in the UK, you can use systems such as “Hey Mercedes”, which was introduced on the A-class in 2018 and is now being rolled out as standard in each new Mercedes model that comes to market. Similar systems exist in competitors like BMWs, but the problem with all of them is they’re a bit clunky, don’t pick up straightaway on what you’re saying, can’t offer many services, and everyone feels a bit silly talking to a dashboard. But everyone felt a bit silly talking to Siri or Alexa five years ago. Not now.
Mercedes’ own MBUX system can already understand and respond in 23 languages. It is starting to understand jokes and the notion of “chatting”, and can differentiate between the voice of the driver and the passenger. The next step is proactive and empathetic artificial intelligence – understanding the mood of the driver from other indicators like their eye movement, their driving reactions and movements – and offering solutions before the driver has asked the system to do anything.
Already, the artificial intelligence is getting more sophisticated every day, so that if you ask the Mercedes system “Can I wear sunglasses tomorrow?” it understands that what you need is a weather report. And if it sees that every morning you follow the same routine of putting the radio on then getting a traffic report before you set off, it will programme the car to do those two things before you select or say anything.
In China right now, Mercedes owners can use the system to order takeaway deliveries to home so the food’s there when you arrive back from a hard day at the office, or ask the car what’s on at the cinema, select a film and the best available seats, book and pay for your tickets, or speak to the smart system in your home to check you locked the front door.
Mercedes has started to work with partners (not in the UK yet, but it’s imminent) such as Trip Advisor, Amazon Music and What3words to provide more and more services offering information, products and events from the comfort and convenience of the driver’s seat. This is where the money comes in and drivers will need to be aware: all car brands will look to make money by suggesting and promoting certain products at the expense of others in response to the driver’s request. Every time the driver then books a theatre trip, for example, through one company instead of the other, the chosen company will pay Mercedes a fee for sending the customer their way. It’s called lead-generation, and it’s common in all areas of life, but not in cars so far. Car brands will have to make drivers aware that they’re being paid by the company to promote their product, and it’s up to the driver to then make the decision to buy. It may take a bit of getting used to, but the cash potential is just too big for car companies to ignore, especially when they make barely a penny profit from building and selling electric cars right now. The future requires all of them to branch out and explore other areas of revenue.
Concerns about safety and data privacy are being addressed, but it’s a bold new front opening up in what cars are all about. The idea that they are the third space after office and home is beginning to feel very real.