Alexa, Find Me a Car: Smart speakers and the auto industry

Smart speakers are a budding technology, yet have already begun influencing consumer behaviour. Voice command devices have a unique value proposition: they allow communication with technology in the most natural way—by speaking.

Once considered a novelty, they are now desirable consumer electronics, attracting the focus and development of tech companies worldwide. And not only are carmakers installing them into production models, but prospective car buyers may one day rely on voice command technology to find a car.

Exploding User Numbers

Unlike smart glasses, or other hyped consumer products that fell short, voice command devices are spreading. The predictions are clear. A report by Juniper Research claims that 55% of US households will contain a smart speaker by 2028. The growth in Canada is comparable. Brian Jackson, director of IT World and industry expert, claims that adoption of voice command speakers will outstrip that of smartphones, finding their way into one million Canadian homes by 2018.

This growing adoption is bending consumer habits. Regardless of demographics, most consumers conduct online research when considering a purchase. While this traditionally meant text-based search engines, voice command allows the consumer to express a query more naturally.

Looking to get your car serviced? Instead of searching “car dealership in [city name]”, a person might ask, “Where is the nearest car dealership?” A voice command device can hear this, and by considering the user’s location and the location of their work or home, give a much more relevant answer.

How Do They Work?

In order to convert sounds into actionable commands, speech must first become text. The three big players in the market—Amazon, Google and Apple—all have their own dictation systems. These are sophisticated enough to ignore most background noise, and get accustomed to the patterns and variance in a voice.

Let’s use the “Where is the nearest car dealership?” query from earlier. The software first breaks this audio into small, analyzable blocks. To solve homophones, or words that sound the same (in this case “where” and “wear”), the system will consider the context of the whole sentence. It then chooses the likeliest meaning.

After establishing what words are spoken, the system must decipher what action the user wants performed. For this, it employs complex algorithms that instantly scour the web, pulling and organizing relevant information. In this case, it will use GPS and proprietary web mapping software to find local car dealerships.

The computer then acts—giving an audible answer: the closest car dealership to the user. If integrated into a dashboard, it may also present a list of other nearby dealerships in the area, or offer directions.

What’s Next for Voice Search and Auto

The automobile sector is keeping abreast of this trend. The industry stands to receive an important benefit from voice command integration: being hands-free by definition, it keeps the driver’s eyes on the road, and off his phone. This is a huge service to public safety.

This integration is already underway. Volvo and Audi are bringing Google Assistant on board, while from mid-2018, BMW and Mini will be adopting Amazon’s Alexa. In the US, both systems are already travelling in recent Mercedes-Benz models. With tech giants building ecosystems of connected devices, it’s possible that consumers in the future will choose a car solely on the voice command system installed.

Voice search, and voice commerce in general, is an expanding force in consumer behaviour. This will be an important technology to keep an eye on as it continues to evolve and change the way consumers interact with research and purchasing vehicles.

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