By Kristin Kolodge
Apple, Google and Amazon are unquestionably technology innovators with very strong brands. When they launch a new product, I’ve learned to sit up and take notice. Certainly, not all of their new products have been massively successful (the smart watch is one good example), but even those with marginal success tend to have a ripple effect on other products and industries over time.
Many tech experts agree that voice recognition devices are fast becoming the biggest technology driver across all industries. More has been done to innovate voice recognition in the past three years than the previous 30.
This is especially true in homes, where appliances can be activated, products purchased and information obtained through devices like Google Home or Amazon Echo (and its Alexa voice service). One industry report estimates that 6.5 million of these devices were sold in 2016, and forecasts sales to hit 24.5 million units in 2017. As a result, software developers are racing to support the voice recognition trend. Rumors are that Microsoft and Apple will launch voice recognition-based virtual assistant devices this year.
Having established a foothold in homes, tech developers are looking to bring their voice recognition and virtual personal assistant technologies to the automotive industry. Amazon Echo, currently offered in a handful of vehicles, is expected to be introduced rapidly across more models in the near future. The tech and automotive industries are betting on the belief that consumers always will always want to be connected.
In a recent J.D. Power survey, 28% of consumers said they would be “very interested” or “somewhat interested” in having Amazon Echo or Google Home in their vehicle. Notable, too, is that the majority of respondents are younger (18-34 years old). Potentially, these devices could assist not only with in-vehicle functions (hands-free calling, navigation, climate controls, etc.), but they also could be connected to the home to regulate thermostats, turn lights on and off, activate security systems, open and close garage doors, or lock and unlock doors.
Interest in Having Technologies Like Amazon Echo or Google Home in Your Car
While this idea of always being connected has merit, I would lend credence to another motivating factor: a high level of dissatisfaction with the current voice recognition systems in vehicles. Consumers have been extremely patient with automakers’ built-in technology. For the last four years, voice recognition has been the top quality problem in J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study. Yet, consumers continue to want this capability. The J.D. Power Tech Experience Index shows that 78% of consumers want voice recognition on their next vehicle. For those that are choosing to walk away from voice recognition, 50% state that the system was not useful or it was confusing to use. Both of these are attributes that Amazon Echo and Google Home are perceived to have mastered.
So, could devices like Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home bridge this gap?
Of course, for these products voice recognition based virtual assistants to be widely adopted in the automotive space, various issues need to be addressed. For example, consumers who want less connectivity mention the high cost of being connected, the potential for hacking and increased driver distraction.
Loss of privacy is another big concern. Since these devices are always listening, what happens with the information collected? Who gets access to it? How does this affect personal privacy laws?
On the industry side, will automakers need to fit vehicles with hardware/software to accommodate both systems (similar to the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto conundrum)? And what happens when Apple or another company joins the voice recognition fray?
Setting aside the technical and legal challenges, the ultimate arbiter of a product’s success or failure is the consumer. That’s what makes the strategic discussion of increasing connectivity—with the vehicle as a hub—so interesting. After all, no one asked Steven Jobs to create a smartphone, but since consumers became aware of its usefulness, millions of iPhones have been sold.
It’s time to listen up. The same may be true of voice recognition-based virtual assistants.
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Kristin Kolodge is Executive Director for Driver Interaction and HMI at J.D. Power. She has a love-hate relationship with connectivity but is a huge Steve Jobs fan.