What is voice control?

It may not be possible to use voice commands to hand over control of your car - but what is voice control and what does it do?

BuyaCar team
Jun 26, 2019

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

What can you use voice control for in a car?

Exactly what you can do with a voice recognition system depends upon the manufacturer and the car – 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 – so music, radio, making and receiving phone calls – the sat-nav system and air-conditioning or climate control functions.

Cars with an internet connection can offer even more voice-operated functions, allowing a 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 or hear text messages, or have the system read emails out to you.

What you can’t do is control the primary functions of your car using your voice, for obvious 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.

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

Like other notable in-car assistant systems – and just as with home assistants like 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 in cars with voice recognition systems that activates it. Older systems then 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 (generally 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 both 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 voice instructions in time.


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