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Cars Integrate with Smart Homes


For many people, their two most expensive possessions are a home and a car. Now technology is bringing both together, one as an extension of the other. In an accelerating trend, smart homes and connected cars are converging — and the pairing promises new lifestyle benefits.

An Expanding Universe

According to a recent study by ABI Research, annual shipments of smart home devices are expected to soar to 467 million in 2023, from 252 million in 2018, a figure that itself was 55 percent higher versus 2017. More than 70 million homes worldwide have at least one smart home device, ABI says. By 2022, ABI predicts they will grow to more than 300 million.

Moreover, ABI forecasts 500 million connected cars on roads worldwide by 2022. And, at least initially, voice control functionality offered by virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant will be the common factor.

“Extending smart home voice control into the connected vehicle is part of an ongoing integration that will pull together home and vehicle personalization,” says Jonathan Collins, research director in the smart home practice at ABI, based in New York. Smart home systems will “be the gatekeeper for a whole range of applications.”

“We certainly place automotive as one of those formerly detached verticals that increasingly will need connectivity into that smart home platform,” he adds.

The reason is two-fold, Collins says: to offer more value to consumers and to develop new revenue streams for automakers. The auto industry’s evolution to mobility as a service (MasS) using shared self-driving cars only amplifies this integration, he says.

Tim Smith, global auto mobility director at ustwo, a creative digital services firm based in London, is more interested in “the sensor-based interaction with your home” and being able to synchronize the separate environments. For example, Smith says, if biometric sensors in the car detect that the driver is cold and anxious on his way home, the vehicle may automatically warm the cabin, start playing relaxing music and turn on ambient mood lighting. But it may also raise the home’s smart thermostat to a warmer temperature, set room lighting to a soothing level through smart light switches, and start playing the same soundtrack through smart speakers at home — all during the drive.

“So, if we speculate in five to ten years the car will have a plethora of these sensors, there’s a wealth of information that we can apply to the car-home connection,” he says.

Automakers could soon begin implementing their own technology innovations outside vehicles, Smith adds. “For the first time, the car is now becoming a smart piece of tech.” But automobiles stand out since these consumer electronic machines function as an environment and have “user’s undivided attention.” As a result, he says, it’s plausible that an automaker’s own embedded voice assistant might be the first one some consumers encounter, and that they’d want it at home as well.

Smith says ustwo is working with five automakers on concepts for new user experience (UX) technologies. Four revolve around voice assistants and car-to-home connectivity. One’s outcome may be unveiled in pre-production form at CES, he says.

Voice is Vital

Elizabeth Halash, connected vehicle third-party API supervisor at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, MI says that thanks to voice technology being able to reverse-connect the home to the car, it “has finally caught up to where we want it to be.” Last January, the automaker launched its FordPass Alexa skill, which enables Ford owners to tell Alexa to remotely start their vehicles or fetch odometer, tire pressure and fuel level readings from it. A partnership with Google will bring Google Assistant to Ford vehicles soon, Halash says.

According to Amazon, Ford is among more than 15 automaker brands using Alexa for remote vehicle management, including BMW, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota. Some automakers — including Ford and Toyota — are integrating Alexa directly into their vehicles’ infotainment systems.

Toyota has integrated Alexa in its 2019 Avalon sedan and Corolla hatchback plus the Lexus ES sedan. It was accomplished in tight collaboration with Amazon engineers and is based on Ford’s Smart Device Link platform technology, which allows seamless integration of Alexa in infotainment systems, explains Brian Inouye, chief product owner of apps and services at the digital transformation and mobility division of Toyota Motor North America in Plano, TX.

So, “guests” (Toyota’s term for vehicle owners) can now use the car’s infotainment system to access smart home controls that were only available through a brought-in smartphone app, Inouye says. And with more than 50,000 Alexa skills available, what’s controllable now includes garage door openers as well as smart lighting systems and refrigerators. He says, “Some of this stuff may seem like a niche but is popular with consumers.”

“As vehicles became connected, it opens these use cases that were not possible before,” he says. “So, home-to-car and car-to-home technology adoption will be more accelerated than it has in the past, and voice is just key — very intuitive.”

Meanwhile, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have developed their own proprietary in-vehicle voice assistants. Mercedes’ MBUX infotainment system that debuted at CES 2018 is triggered by “Hey Mercedes”; and BMW’s Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA), which was announced in September for 2019 models, responds to any name the user assigns it.

BMW’s IPA also includes a portable digital customer profile, dubbed BMW ID, uses artificial intelligence (AI) and links to the automaker’s own Open Mobility Cloud service to enable the assistant to learn and adapt to the user’s preferences over time. Nevertheless, IPA complements rather than replaces other voice assistants in BMW vehicles, including Alexa, the automaker asserts. Its primary purpose is to explain vehicle functions to users and control vehicle settings and systems.

Indeed, the future of voice assistants in the car lies with AI and machine learning so the vehicle can anticipate users’ needs and be proactive, says Toyota’s Inouye. Toyota wants the assistant to have deeper access to a vehicle’s internal systems and functions than it can today. Amazon Alexa is not the finish line, he emphasizes.

“In the end, ideally, you’ll want to speak with one [assistant],” but until that time cars will be equipped with a variety of virtual assistants operating simultaneously, Inouye says.

Another idea is for the voice assistant to have a guise. “One early insight we had about voice systems was that people were very disorientated if there was no physical manifestation of it,” says ustwo’s Smith. “So, we’ve developed a concept where the voice system meets you where you’re looking through a physical manifestation — a graphical representation of the voice assistant that follows your gaze. For the driver that might be somewhere near the road, in the [instrument] cluster or the heads-up display area.

“The other thing is, when you address it, it can move to you,” as a way of showing its attentive, he says. “If the passenger starts speaking, it can move away from the driver and be somewhere more appropriate for the passenger.” It may also change form in this circumstance, say from a blue square graphic for the driver to a pink circle for the passenger — “and this can work in your own car — or across shared cars and in the home,” Smith says.

For now, Alexa is favored by automakers because its automotive software development kit (SDK) is the most flexible among commercial virtual assistants’ technology, requiring less “overhead,” says Dominique Massonié, head of innovation and incubation for Europe at Elektrobit, a global supplier of embedded and connected software products and services for the auto industry, based in Erlangen, Germany. Elektrobit announced at CES 2018 that it was among the first auto industry suppliers to help integrate Alexa directly into vehicles.

Aftermarket products are helping forge car-to-home links, too. Pioneer Electronics, for instance, features the Google Assistant in one of its aftermarket automotive head units by virtue of Android Auto integration. Google announced the addition of its virtual assistant to Android Auto at CES 2018. And Pioneer will be demonstrating this at CES 2019, says Ted Cardenas, vice president of marketing at the car electronics division of Pioneer Electronics (USA), Inc. in Torrance, CA.

Apple is also playing in this space, having added its HomeKit technology to Apple CarPlay in February and began promoting smart home control through it in July, Cardenas noted. He points out three Pioneer head units feature CarPlay.

“CarPlay and Android Auto are a little bit like keyless entry,” Cardenas noted. “You don’t know what you’re missing until you try it, and then you realize you can’t live without it.”

Amazon itself debuted an aftermarket Alexa add-on for cars in September, named Echo Auto. It’s a dashboard-mounted device that can leverage a brought-in phone’s Bluetooth technology for connectivity. But it’s not the first aftermarket Alexa device for cars. For example, Muse Auto from Speak Music debuted in 2017. Technology is connecting smart homes and cars to provide consumers with even more benefits.

Robert E. Calem

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