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Digital dialogue

Your car may already feel like an extension of your home based on the hodgepodge of stuff collecting in the backseat, but it’s apparent that technology will soon make the two more connected than ever.

No one has proposed blurring the line more than Hyundai – which unveiled a futuristic concept car last week that literally connects to the home via a hole in the wall. Hyundai envisions the car becoming a lounge-like extension of the living space that provides air conditioning and entertainment, and acts as a back-up generator.

“By seamlessly blending features from the car with home and work environments, the user experience is uninterrupted whether socialising, working at home, or on the move,” Hak Su Ha, Hyundai’s design center director, said in a news release.

But even if cars never plug into the home physically, they will digitally. As automobiles increasingly come outfitted with internet connections and on-board operating systems, it’s enabled them to “speak” with other smart devices inside and outside the vehicle. That means automakers can link cars to artificial intelligence systems inside the home – and eventually build AI into the car itself.

The hope is these systems will make the driving experience more convenient and personalised, and open the door to new features and services.

“This voice-activated digital platform becomes the glue that is binding these diverse and separate technologies together,” said Shawn DuBravac, a futurist and chief economist at the Consumer Technology Association.

“There’s no reason that can’t extend beyond the home,” he added. “I think the car is a very natural extension.”

Both Ford and Volkswagen announced plans to integrate Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, into its cars in the next year. Owners of Amazon Echos can already command Alexa to play music, buy merchandise, order pizza and do other relatively simple tasks using just their voice. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Soon, the system will be able to control features of the car from inside the home and vice versa. That means users can tell Alexa to start and stop the car’s engine using an Amazon Echo device. If you’re listening to music or an audio book at home, you can then climb in the car and pick up where you left off.

“You can kind of transition from your car to your home and back from the car to the home, and operate both with just your voice,” Steve Rabuchin, Amazon’s vice president of Alexa voice services and Alexa skills, said at a dinner announcing the Ford partnership.

Panasonic Automotive and IBM are developing software that harnesses IBM’s language processing and computing software, known as Watson, in a similar capacity. Already the system allows you to place and pay for a meal order from the car, the companies announced. Fiat Chrysler had a prototype of the software on display at CES.

Artificial intelligence is a prominent theme throughout the entire CES technology conference in Las Vegas. Voice-activated virtual assistants were featured in devices from refrigerators to alarm clocks, writes my colleague Hayley Tsukayama, who called them “the big takeaway from this year’s CES”:

“And the evidence that these gadgets can actually live up to their promised potential – and maybe even beyond what we’ve thought about before – is strong. This year more than ever, it feels like we’ve crossed the Rubicon. Soon, there won’t be the need for distinguishing between a ‘smart’ version of a gadget and a dumb one at all.”

The auto companies there, of course, are no exception. They see the potential of voice assistants to make driving easier and more productive, a convenience that could lead to increased customer satisfaction. Long term, however, there are more direct business benefits. Artificial intelligence systems are built to collect a plethora of data and use it to understand people more deeply. That information and the ability to process it accurately could open new revenue streams for car makers.

CES has emerged as the industry conference where automakers reveal their most groundbreaking ideas. Even the nation’s largest auto show, which begins in Detroit this week, won’t feature the same level of cutting-edge technology. Autonomous driving software and big data plays also featured prominently at CES, and both will require increased artificial-intelligence capabilities for their potential to be fully realised.

“In order to get to the autonomous vehicle, you essentially have to go through the deep learning and artificial intelligence. They go hand in hand,” said Jeff Schuster, an analyst at LCM Automotive. “As an industry, as you progress toward that end game of autonomous car sharing, this is a key component of that.”

WP-Bloomberg

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