How digital assistants hold the keys to the future of mobility

Smartphone distraction is the main cause of car accidents, but what if we turned that very technology into the solution to the problem?

by Holger Weiss


Although self-driving cars will eventually make their way into people’s daily lives, for now, we’re all still driving our way to and from work the old-fashioned way. We’ll probably have to wait another 20 years before we will be able to watch a movie or read a book as a vehicle automatically takes us to our destination. In the meantime, car accidents’ figures are increasing year on year, and our smartphones addiction is a huge part of the problem: a recent study shows that in the US alone 88% of people use their smartphones whilst driving, making these devices one of the possible causes for this alarming figure. Despite laws forbidding such behaviour, it is clear that regulations alone are not really effective.

If technology is the main reason we get distracted while we are on the road, it might be the solution, too. After a long career in mobility companies, my partner and I thought of tapping into voice assistance to help drivers be safer, while still giving them the opportunity of replying to work emails or friends’ calls during their daily car commute. Which is why we created Chris, your next-gen digital co-pilot.

Voice assistants have been around for a while now, but the technology has only really started gathering momentum over the last few years. Until recently, the technologies that lie behind them – machine and deep learning – were not developed enough for them to actually recognise natural language (Natural Language Processing) and provide the correct action the user requested.

However today as the technology has progressed, tech giants such as Apple and Amazon have released their own voice assistants. Initially as softwares integrated within existing devices, such as Siri and Cortana, and then later into smart speakers, such as Google Home and Alexa. However, these softwares are designed for domestic use or are not yet suitable to be used in cars. An example: a smartphone loses the connection the moment a vehicle enters a tunnel, rendering voice assistants unusable multiple times throughout the journey.

The voice assistant we at German Autolabs have created instead was born for this specific purpose: to be your digital assistant while you are behind the wheel. By connecting this smart mobile device to your smartphone, you can safely drive as it performs a number of useful tasks, such as dictating messages or emails, calling your contacts, listening to your favourite album or checking your route — all with total safety in mind.

Chris is suitable for any vehicle no matter how old it is: this means that you can make your car ‘smart’ just by upgrading it with this device. The system also works when there is no coverage, allowing the driver to use it at all times. But we don’t want it to be a simple voice assistant: we are working on innovative features, which will let it understand the general conditions of the passengers. For example, Chris will stop reading an email to the driver if it notices that they are distracted, as well as make sure they don’t fall asleep: it’s a real digital co-driver, the smart-brain of the car.

No matter how long we’ll have to wait to see automated cars in the streets of our cities, this is the direction that the mobility industry is taking: an integration of technologies, from car-to-car connection through artificial intelligence. A revolution which is ultimately being driven by a change in people’s behaviour – a behaviour which is increasingly based on the sharing economy, sustainability and integration of different modes of transport.

After decades of being stuck with the same fuels, materials and technologies, the automotive sector is finally building its own personal path to innovation. Not an easy road for sure, as it takes a while to take the ‘stiffness’ away from any business that’s not used to disruption and rapid change. However, with any luck, undertaking these first steps may be the hardest thing to do. Startups will indeed have a pivotal role in this, as they will provide car manufacturers with the knowledge and skills they currently lack.

As the future is still (mainly) unwritten, it’s also hard to say if the traditional players will keep up with innovation and be the main drivers in the future of mobility, or if startups will reach key positions instead. In a scenario full of uncertainties, there’s one thing we can all be pretty sure of: without further innovation and planning, all main actors in this scenario will find themselves without a voice in the mobility world of tomorrow.