At CES, Volvo has announced a partnership with Microsoft to allow for voice commands through the On Call telematics app on the Microsoft Band 2 fitness tracker/smartwatch-like device. It'll allow drivers to voice control the sort of functions that used to be relegated to a button-mashing routine on your key fob – things like preconditioning the vehicle.
Volvo's communications manager for connected cars Sascha Heiniger told Autoblog that the voice commands are of the "specific phrase" type. It's not natural speech, a la Apple's Siri, so you'll have to learn some basic commands, like "prepare my Volvo" to precondition the vehicle. Allowing the customization of voice command phrases is a possible, but not currently planned, future upgrade.
Ignore for a second that this voice command feature is debuting on a much less popular, lower-profile device than the obvious Apple Watch or Samsung Gear S2 – the functionality will probably migrate to the apps for other devices at some point. Let's also ignore that requiring a wearable in the first place to talk to your vehicle will seem outdated when, at some point in the future, your phone and vehicle will talk seamlessly and be listening to what you're saying anyways. What's more important than any of this is where the technology leads.
Volvo should get a lot of credit for the incremental improvements it's made to driver-vehicle interaction. Look at the improved Sensus infotainment system in the current XC90, a strong contender for Autoblog's Technology of the Year award and a great-looking and -functioning system. In our testing, we found that interacting with the portrait-orientation, tablet-style touchscreen is remarkably easy – no small feat considering the frustration many systems cause. (We're looking at you, Cadillac Cue.) Objectively, Sensus is a rationalized and nicely styled incremental improvement in the infotainment sphere, and not a whole-cloth reimagining of the genre, that adds greatly to the overall experience.
Perhaps even more interesting than the voice control aspect is Volvo's vision for what connected telematics could actually do for your life. There's the cliche about manufacturers wanting consumers to interact more with their cars, to build a relationship with the car. In the abstract, these new technologies can seem like the same functionality you're already used to, offered through a different interface. But a quick chat with Heiniger revealed that Volvo views consumer-vehicle interaction as a two-way street.
In a hypothetical example, speaking about features that could be added to Volvo's telematics suite in the future, Heiniger asked me to imagine a situation. Say, like a Nest thermostat, your Volvo has learned that you generally leave to take your kids to school at 7am. Traffic this morning is particularly bad, so your device gets a push notification earlier than normal. You shower a bit earlier and get to your destination on time, thanks to that timely and useful notification. If it's really cold, you may get a query on the device asking if you'd like to precondition the car, or perhaps you'd set it to do this automatically at a certain temperature. If plans change and school is cancelled, rather than hunt through some submenus, you'd just tell the Volvo to cancel preconditioning with a quick voice command.
While that's not what this Microsoft-Volvo app can do now, that level of interaction is within the realm of what's currently possible, and could be rolled out in subsequent updates on contemporary devices. The hypothetical is also useful to help us consider what Volvo envisions a next-generation connected car could do for us – it's less novelty and more practical benefit. Heiniger told me that Volvo wants its cars to be fully integrated with the owner's agenda, seamlessly pushing notifications to the driver, and allowing for directions or appointments to be passed through the Volvo and onto the connected device. As it stands, the app will support the voice command "send my meeting address to my Volvo", setting the nav to head to the location of the appointment - blurring the distinction between functions we normally consider to be distinct: navigation and calendar.
Talking to your Volvo won't radically alter your personal transportation universe, but it's the sort of incremental step to a connected car future that transcends the buzzwords to offer a tangible and appreciable benefit.
More than 33 years after the popular American TV show Knight Rider showed David 'The Hoff' Hasselhoff talking to his car KITT, Volvo and Microsoft are launching a wearable-enabled voice control system.
Volvo owners will be able to talk to their car via their Microsoft Band 2, allowing them to instruct their vehicle to perform tasks including, setting the navigation, starting the heater, locking the doors, flashing the lights or sounding the horn via Volvo's mobile app Volvo on Call and the connected wearable device.
In November 2015 Volvo and Microsoft announced their high-profile collaboration with the first automotive application of HoloLens technology. HoloLens is the world's first fully untethered holographic computer, which could be used in future to redefine how customers first encounter, explore and even buy car. Now the two companies are delivering remote voice control for Volvo cars via the Microsoft Band 2 as another proof-point in their ambition to jointly develop next generation automotive technologies.
"Volvo is intent on making the car experience as easy and convenient as possible by utilising the latest technology in the most relevant and inspiring ways. With voice control we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible with digital assistant functionalities," said Thomas Müller, Vice President Electrics/ Electronics & E-Propulsion at Volvo Car Group.
In recent times Volvo Cars' has begun to focus closely on innovations outside the traditional automotive arena, keen on opening up potential partnerships and new business models.
"When innovating we are not interested in technology for the sake of technology. If a technology does not make a customer's life easier, better, safer or more fun, we don't use it. Let's face it – who hasn't dreamed of talking to their car via a wrist worn wearable?" said Klas Bendrik Senior Vice President and Group Chief Information Officer at Volvo Car Group.
"Our ongoing partnership with Volvo continues to bring ground breaking technology to enhance the automotive experience," said Peggy Johnson, Executive Vice President of business development at Microsoft. "Together with Volvo, we're just beginning to understand the potential that technology has to improve driver safety and productivity."
The new possibility to connect to a Volvo with voice control through Microsoft Band 2 will be available for customers in Volvo on Call enabled markets in spring 2016.