What is voice control?

You may not be able to drive using voice commands but you can control many in-car systems with your voice. Keep reading to find out how

BuyaCar team
Jul 29, 2019

Voice control in a car is a system that allows you to operate a number of vehicle functions solely with voice commands. The main advantage of this is that it lets you adjust various systems and settings while minimising the amount of attention you need to take away from the road.

What can you use voice control for in a car?

Exactly what you can do with a voice recognition system depends upon the car model – and sometimes which options packs you’ve specified. However, in general, the main functions that you’ll most likely be able to control by voice are the media system – typically changing the volume, skipping tracks or selecting a radio station plus making and receiving phone calls – the sat-nav system and air-conditioning functions.

Cars with an internet connection can offer even more sophisticated voice-operated functions, allowing the driver to undertake a whole range of tasks, from checking the weather, to searching for a parking spot or even booking a restaurant table. You can also often dictate text messages or have the system read text messages or emails out to you.

What you can’t do is control the primary functions of your car using your voice - such as accelerating or steering - for safety reasons. This means you can’t change gear, use cruise control or activate advanced self-driving/driver assist functions like Volvo’s Pilot Assist or Tesla’s Autopilot via voice operation.

How easy is voice recognition software to use?

Voice recognition software in cars has been around for a surprisingly long time (since the 2000s in some cars), but until recently it was quite an awkward experience, requiring the driver to use a specific set of voice commands in the hope of being understood, with many accents not being understand. These systems would often fail to understand even the most basic voice commands. 

Now, though, many car manufacturers are using much more sophisticated software that recognises far more natural, flowing conversational styles of talking. Some, such as Mercedes’ MBUX system, even start to ‘learn’ speech patterns, so you can ask it something like “is it T shirt weather this weekend?”, responding by providing you with the weather forecast.

As with other notable in-car assistant systems – and home assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa - you can wake MBUX with a trigger phrase, in this case ‘Hey Mercedes’. Other systems that offer similar levels of sophistication to MBUX include BMW’s Intelligent Personal Assistant - one party trick of this is to answer questions on the functions of the car like ‘what does this warning light mean?’ - Ford’s Sync 3 and Lexus’ Dynamic Voice Recognition.

How voice recognition in cars work

You’ll normally find there’s a button on the steering wheel to activate voice recognition systems, when fitted. Older systems typically require a specific command prompt to get certain features to work, and you’ll often be prompted either by an audible or written instruction as to which terms will get the system to act.

More modern software actively learns how a driver speaks, and picks up certain vocabulary that can make it much easier to use. The best systems can respond to simple requests such as ‘find me a nearby restaurant’.

The newest systems will require some sort of prompt but, instead of a button, these respond to a trigger word or phrase, much like home assistants such as Amazon Alexa.

Android and iPhone voice control

Lots of new cars come fitted with Google’s Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay. These are ‘screen mirroring’ functions that transfer simplified versions of your smartphone’s operating system onto the car's display. Both Google and Apple versions have voice-recognition functionality built into this, allowing you to access and use a variety of apps via simple speech while you’re driving, generally by pressing the ‘talk’ button in your car (normally found on the steering wheel).

Remember, though, that these systems only control apps and systems on your phone – so you may inadvertently end up using a lot of data if you use voice-activated sat-nav via Android Auto or CarPlay.

The advantage of these systems is that smartphone makers are constantly expanding the functionality and availability of speech-activated apps via their systems, meaning your car should be able to follow more and more voice instructions in time.


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