Remember the old TV show "Knight Rider?" It was about a guy with a modified Pontiac Trans Am named KITT that had a built-in computer brain and the ability to carry on intelligent conversations with its driver. Obviously a lot of budding young automotive engineers watched the show, because today most cars do indeed have computer brains and many can talk to their drivers. Admittedly, the conversational abilities of most cars is limited to a set of voice commands (sometimes as many as 10,000 of them), and canned responses that can be used to activate and control a few of the car's features -- especially the GPS, the entertainment system, the environmental controls and mobile phone. But can it be long before your Prius wants to have a chat with you about your stock portfolio or the odds on the Red Sox winning the next World Series?
A lot of auto manufacturers now supply fully integrated in-vehicle communications and entertainment systems in their cars and trucks, like Ford's SYNC and Fiat's Blue&Me, that not only provide a common interface to most of the car's electronic functions but also voice recognition software that can be used to control those systems through an elaborate set of commands. The number of commands that these systems can understand is growing by the day and it would likely take a small manual to list them all. (In fact, such a manual may have come with your car.) On the next several pages we'll look at some of the most useful of these commands to see what they can actually do now, and what they may be capable of in the near future.
"Call my wife at work."
In most states, getting caught driving with a cell phone pressed to your ear will earn you a moving violation ticket -- and it isn't likely to be cheap. That's why it's common now for cars to offer hands-free Bluetooth integration, so you can talk on the phone while still keeping both hands on the wheel. But you still need to dial the number you're calling or at least pick a name from your phone's address book, right? Not necessarily. More and more cars are offering voice commands for cell phones, so instead of punching in a number you can simply say, "Call Bill Williams." And if you have more than one number in the system for Bill, your car can then ask you (shades of KITT, the talking Trans Am!) "Do you wish to call Bill Williams at work or at home?" Now, if you've anticipated this problem, you can get around it by saying "Call Bill Williams at home," so your car's literal-minded electronic brain won't get confused. Naturally, you have to preprogram your phone (or the car's address book) in advance with Bill's various numbers. But you've probably done that already, right?
Getting a bit chilly in the cockpit? Can't remember which button makes the heater blow warmer air? Don't rear end the car in front of you while trying to read those cryptic symbols on the dashboard. Just ask the car to do it for you and let it worry about the details. Many cars will respond to a range of synonyms for this command, such as "temp up" or "warmer" (or, in the opposite situation, "temp down" or "cooler"). Sure, it's a bit like talking to a clever 5-year old; but then again, 5-year old kids can be very useful for doing odd jobs around the car. And your car's voice-recognition system will never ask you, "Are we there yet?"
Okay, we haven't yet reached the point where your car can act as your personal chauffeur -- and we probably won't until self-driving automobiles (which do already exist, by the way) are well beyond the experimental stage. But GPS devices in cars have become quite common, and if you're negotiating your way through a complicated trip across a large city, you may need to interact with your GPS fairly often to figure out how to get from point A to point B. So a lot of cars (and the GPS systems built into them) let you tell them verbally where you want to go. Of course, talking with your GPS about how to get to the local hardware store can be more than a little complicated, and in some cases, is about as much fun as trying to negotiate the voicemail-hell of a large company's customer support system -- but it's still a lot safer than trying to type street addresses and steer at the same time.
"Play 'Misty' for me."
This isn't a feature of your car so much as it's a feature of recent model iPods and iPhone's from Apple, Inc., but if you have Bluetooth integration or an iPod dock, you can tell the iPod/iPhone what album or artist to play. It hasn't reached the point yet where you can ask for an individual song -- for that you should use your Bluetooth integration to call in a request to a DJ at a local radio station. But if you find that driving goes better with The Rolling Stones or Lady Gaga, you don't have to distract yourself dialing through a menu of playlists (or, worse yet, digging through a hopelessly old-fashioned stack of compact discs).
"Take a letter, please."
Will there ever come a day when you can have your car take dictation while you drive? Sure, and that day will come very soon if automakers like BMW have their way. The German car company has a prototype system that allows a driver to dictate and transmit e-mail messages without ever touching a computer or a smartphone. Some cars already use your Bluetooth connection to read your e-mail out loud, but now you'll be able to compose a response verbally with a complete set of editing functions, just as you would on your computer's keyboard or Blackberry's keypad. Ford already plans to do something similar with its SYNC system and GM has an Android app in the works for e-mail dictation via its built-in OnStar systems. Can a "Beam me up, Scotty" command be far behind?
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- Apple Support. "iPhone and iPod touch: Tips for using Voice Control." (Oct. 11, 2011) http://support.apple.com/kb/ht3597
- Fiatusa.com. "Blue&Me." (Oct. 11, 2011) http://www.fiatusa.com/en/BlueAndMe/
- Ford.com. "SYNC. Say the Word." (Oct. 11, 2011) http://www.ford.com/syncmyride/
- Gain, Bruce. "BMW Aims For Cars to Take E-mail Dictation." PC World. (Oct. 11, 2011) http://www.pcworld.com/businesscenter/article/221337/bmw_aims_for_cars_to_take_email_dictation.html
- Gizmodo. "Ford Sync Gets 100x More Voice Commands." (Oct. 11, 2011) http://gizmodo.com/5588345/ford-sync-gets-100x-more-voice-commands