In-car speech recognition is nothing new. Manufacturers have been pedalling the technology for years, usually with less than brilliant results.
And yet, these systems are making a comeback, largely fueled by the rise of voice recognition systems in the consumer tech world like Alexa and Google Assistant. Indeed, some car companies are partnering with Amazon, Google and others for their infotainment setups.
Mercedes, however, has decided instead to invest vast quantities of money in developing its own system. The justification is that the kind of commands you’re likely to bark at your car are likely to be very different from the ones aimed at your smartphone or wireless home assistant. Car-specific systems also need to deal with the general noise of a moving vehicle, and they preferably need to work offline when the mobile signal isn’t strong enough, which Merc’s one does.
It all sounds quite impressive when it’s laid out in a fancy presentation, but during my two initial encounters with the Merc setup – at the launches of the A-Class and AMG A35 – I was wasn’t exactly wowed. It was at times amusing in its responses to my commands, and I’m not referring to the lame ‘banter’ it responds with when you ask it to tell you a joke. Which is usually “I’m sorry, my engineers were German”. Chortle.
No, it was entertaining due to just how badly it misinterpreted what you were asking it to do at times. So when taking the keys to an A35 for a week in the UK, I was surprised to find myself not just using the voice assistant – activated by saying ‘Hey Mercedes’ – but actually appreciating it.
Whether it’s because I was using a better choice of words or the vehicle in question was becoming more in tune with my voice (it’s supposed to ‘learn’ the way you speak over time), I had much more success with it.
Being someone who usually ends up leaving late and in a hurry, I appreciated being able to simply tell the car my destination, rather than taking my eyes off the road and wildly stabbing at the touchscreen. I liked that I didn’t have to be specific – all it takes is saying you’re too cold or too hot, and it’ll adjust the climate control to suit. And when you’re bored, it’s always nice to ask the car to change the ambient lighting to a different colour.
This isn’t my only recent positive experience with voice commands, either. With BMW’s system – which I sampled in the Z4 – you can influence the climate controls in the same way, but with a clever extra dimension. It can tell if it’s the driver or front-seat passenger asking, so it’ll turn up the appropriate climate zone in response. I tested it a few times, and yes, it actually works.
It’s still not quite there, of course. In the Z4, I recall asking if the navigation could be muted. At which point it did just about the worst thing it could have done – it cancelled the route, unhelpfully just before I got to a roundabout. Then there was the time I told the A35 to zoom in on the map, only for it to try and navigate to ‘Zoom Erlebniswelt’ in Germany. As lovely as Gelsenkirchen’s highly rated ‘zoo adventure world’ sounds, it didn’t really help me locating exactly where I was on the A1.
So there’s still plenty of progress to be made. But finally, voice activation feels like more than just a gimmick. With cars becoming ever more complex and crammed full of potentially distracting features, this seems especially well timed.