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
Sep 21, 2021

As conversations with smartphones and smart speakers have transitioned from science-fiction to reality, this convenient innovation has now started to make a more common appearance in cars, too. 

While asking your smart speaker to read back your shopping list or recent messages while you’re at home is convenient, voice control in a car goes a big step further. Being able to change the car’s temperature or radio station without having to take your eyes off the road or hands off the wheel means a real improvement towards road safety.

This handy guide will give you all the details on this up and coming new tech and it's various uses - read on to find out more, or click the button below to search for used cars equipped with voice control features.

What can you use in-car voice control for?

Exactly what you can do with in-car voice control depends on the car you're driving. Generally, the main functions that can be adjusted via voice control are centred around the media system – such as changing the volume, skipping tracks or selecting a radio station. In some cases, you'll also be able to make and receive phone calls as well as programme the sat-nav and air-conditioning.

More upmarket cars with their own internet connection can offer even more sophisticated voice control functions, such as checking the weather, searching for a parking space or even making a table reservation at a restaurant. In many cases, you can also dictate text messages or have the system read text messages or emails out to you.

What you can’t do, at least as of yet, is control your car’s primary functions - such as acceleration - via voice control; this is 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.

In general terms, the idea of in-car voice control is to take away the distractions that come with driving and remove the need for you to divert your attention away from the road.

How easy is voice recognition software to use?

In-car voice recognition software 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 - even though this was quite rarely the case.

These systems would often fail to understand even the most basic voice commands and would quickly prove to be nothing other than an infuriating distraction that would be swiftly forgotten about.

Now, though, many car manufacturers are using much more sophisticated software that recognises far more natural, flowing conversational voice commands. 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?”, the system will then respond 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’. Another system that offers similar levels of sophistication to MBUX is 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?’.

Voice recognition in cars

In most cases, voice recognition is switched on via a button on the steering wheel. Older systems typically require a specific command prompt to get certain features to work, and you’ll often be prompted by either 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 Alexa or Siri.

Android and iPhone voice control

The majority of new cars built since the mid-2010s are compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. These are ‘screen mirroring’ functions that transfer simplified versions of your smartphone’s operating system onto the car's dashboard display. Both of these softwares have voice recognition functionality built-in, 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 your phone 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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