I’ve been wanting to test out the Intelligent Personal Assistant in a BMW for quite some time now. Announced last fall, I finally had my chance at a car rally held in Wisconsin recently.
Shown in recent commercials – and competing somewhat with Apple Siri, Google Assistant, and the Amazon Alexa bots – the BMW assistant can respond to natural language commands that tie in directly to the car, meaning you can adjust the cabin temperature by voice or enable the seat heaters, unlock the trunk, and change the Sirius XM radio station.
That’s my one gripe about all of the other assistants – they are great for all purpose tasks like weather forecasts or giving you a news synopsis, and they are extremely powerful in terms of understanding what you say, but they don’t tap into any of the systems in a car.
While Alexa does work in a BMW (and other models including many Ford cars and trucks), it’s not like the voicebots really understand that you're in a BMW.
If you use Siri or Google Assistant, and then enable Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, you can get directions, ask random trivia questions, and control music playback but you can’t change, say, the climate control settings.
Command and conquer
I decided to test quite a few voice commands in a BMW X7, and tried saying things in different ways. You can press a voice button on the steering wheel or say 'Hey, BMW' to activate it. At first, I had the most success setting the temperature. I asked the BMW assistant to set the temp to 72, and that worked every time.
I also tried saying things like 'set the temperature a little warmer', and that also worked. I was surprised when I asked the assistant to enable the seat warmers, and noticed how the icon for that feature lit up right away. All good so far.
I experimented with the radio a fair amount. I asked about specific stations like CNN and that worked perfectly. I was really impressed when I asked for a weather forecast and the wide, colorful screen on the X7 showed large icons for a string of sunny days that week.
I tried saying things that were a bit vague, with mixed results. When I told the assistant I was a little cold, the bot said it did not understand what it wanted me to do. I asked a trivia question about President Trump, and the bot didn’t know how to respond.
I also asked the assistant to open the trunk. A BMW rep told me this is a safety issue, although if I’m parked I wondered why that would be a problem. The voice assistant didn’t open the trunk release, but did agree to unlock the trunk for me. I asked the bot to move my seat forward a little, and that didn’t work – again, the BMW rep said that’s a safety issue.
I’d prefer if the bot was able to figure out that my seat is pretty far back from my typical position and agree to move the seat forward a little. I can also see how messing with any settings for the seat other than the seat warmer could be a problem, especially in unusual driving situations.
I finished my test by asking about vehicle status like tire pressure, and that worked great. I was impressed with how easily the bot understood what I was asking, and didn’t need to ask for any clarifications about anything. The bot dutifully responded and acted as needed.
I can see how these bots will help drivers in the future, and I liked how they understood commands related to the car. My only disappointment is that the BMW bot is not meant to compete with Google, Apple or Amazon in any way. When I asked about sports scores, some trivia questions, and to remind me about an appointment, none of those things worked.
However, my guess is that this will go in one of two ways. Either CarPlay and Android Auto will advanced and start working with individual car settings like the seat warmers, or the auto companies will keep improving their own bots to the point where we don’t really need to connect our phones anymore, and will rely on those assistants instead.
We shall see who wins that war.
On The Road is TechRadar's regular look at the futuristic tech in today's hottest cars. John Brandon, a journalist who's been writing about cars for 12 years, puts a new car and its cutting-edge tech through the paces every week. One goal: To find out which new technologies will lead us to fully self-driving cars.