“Alexa, turn on my windshield wipers!”

America has fallen in love with ‘Smart Speakers’. It’s now estimated by some sources, that 20% of US residents over the age of 18 have one of these (or more) devices in their homes. That’s one in 5 that own & use one of these virtual assistants. Some estimates claim 1 in 4 now have one in their residence. These are also increasingly replacing radios in the home, but access to local radio stations is still a popular choice for many, when faced with a myriad of options. Broadcasters need to make note of this & ensure their stations are having streams accessed by all competitors in productions. In spite of some privacy concerns over the retention of recordings & other data by the developers of these, today there are at least 12 companies putting our competing personal assistance products defined as Smart Speakers. Consumer acceptance & popularity of these devices will continue to increase. The devices themselves will be able to respond to ever increasing complexity of commands & directives by users as more & more of these make their way into our homes.

(left to right:) Google Home, Apple’s HomePod & Amazon Echo – aka “Alexa”

The next inevitable evolution in Smart Speakers is obviously – mobile. Increasingly, legislation in a number of states & other countries is now making “distracted driving” a punishable offence. Car manufacturers & the third-party developers designing & making vehicle audio & navigation control centers are well aware of this. The irony is that the more sophisticated & intelligent these control centers have become, the more they can potentially contribute to distracted driving. A case in point is a recent review of Mercedes-Benz “Command Infotainment System” made by third-party electronics firm Burmester. Writer Paul Kaminski in RadioWorld reviews this unit & claims it has a steep learning curve. The screen & controls are separate. The controls consist of a main screen & a console-mounted jog wheel & mini touch screen to operate the system. The Command system in the Mercedes C 300 was enabled for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, as well as Bluetooth audio connection for the phone and audio. The model reviewed had the TuneIn app loaded. Subscription-based internet access through AT&T is offered. How on earth is one supposed to keep eyes on the road, work commitments or a scheduled appointment with such complexity when faced with such a control center & it’s variety of options?

What the driver and passengers see first, when the Command infotainment system on the Mercedes-Benz C-300 sedan is powered up.

The answers will shortly appear on the horizon & will be entirely voice-command activated. Amazon Echo (“Alexa”), Apple, Microsoft & Google are among the companies racing to develop the in-dash Smart Speaker that will be your virtual co-driver. Using voice recognition, customized personal key-fobs for each family member, or keypad log-in will ensure a truly personal experience. As with the home products, these devices will memorize one’s personal favorites, whether the driver prefers to navigate using GPS or mapping apps, one’s favorite radio stations, podcasts or streaming services. “Alexa, turn on KIRO news” “Alexa, help me find Magnolia Blvd West” Drivers will no longer risk distraction operating these complex audio/navigation centers when voice activation becomes a reality.  

The optional center console touchpad on the Mercedes-Benz Command infotainment system. Touch the top to move between choices. The assembly is stationary in the console.

Of course, this reporter wonders how much this will add to the cost of what is already becoming a significant cost burden for purchasers of new vehicles. However, reducing or elimination the need for distraction is essential to promote & maintain safety on our roadways. As we also move towards a future of self-driving vehicles, these voice-activated dashboard systems will provide all the interfacing needed to provide manual or over- ride control of the vehicle, not to mention keeping the “main operator” & passengers entertained & informed as required. When you purchase a new vehicle, the Smart Speaker audio/navigation center will introduce itself to you the first time you activate the starter or ignition & then learn your needs & preferences. I must again emphasize to broadcasters the importance of having relevant RDS data showing station imaging, format, slogans & logos in order to get selected by one of these smart systems. Make sure your station(s) will be an easy choice for motorists acquiring new cars & trucks. Meanwhile…get ready America to have a running conversation with YOUR next vehicle!

An HD2 signal is displayed on the Mercedes Command Infotainment System. Note the illuminated HD Radio logo.

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Author: Mike Cherry

retired broadcaster: on-air, MD, PD, asst PD, Prod Mgr, IT, station technician/engineer, pioneer Internet webcaster, station installation/maintenance; 12 years in commercial radio, 17 years volunteer in campus/community radio in B.C., Alberta & Wash. Amateur radio operator & "DXer" specializing in AM night-time DX, short-wave DX/listening & remote SDR DXing/listening
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