BMW가 올 하반기부터 출시되는 모든 자동차에 아마존(Amazon)의 인공지능 비서 ‘알렉사(Alexa)’를 기본 탑재할 계획이다.
알렉사, 코타나(Cortana), 구글 어시스턴트(Google Assistant)와 같은 인공지능 비서 중 아마존의 알렉사와 성공적으로 제휴를 맺은 BMW는 올 하반기에 독일, 오스트리아, 미국과 영국을 중심으로 신규 자동차를 공식 출범할 것이라고 전했다.
BMW 디지털 제품 디어터 메이(Dieter May) 부사장은 “알렉사가 자동차의 모든 기능과 깊게 혼합돼있다”며 “컵 위에 그려진 점박이 무늬처럼 단순한 장식으로 끝나지 않을 것”이라고 설명했다.
BMW는 알렉사의 음성 기능만 탑재하는 것이 아닌, 현재 아마존의 알렉사 팀과 직접 협력하여 디스플레이 기능도 개발했다고 전했다. 디자인은 이전에 개발한 ‘커넥티드 드라이브(Connected Drive)’와 비슷하게 탑재될 것으로 보인다.
BMW의 ‘말하기’ 버튼을 누르거나 음성 인식으로 실행되는 알렉사는 BMW 서버를 먼저 거친 후, 아마존 서버로 전송된다. BMW는 개인 정보를 보호하고 데이터를 통제하기 위함으로, 아마존에 양해를 구한 것으로 알려졌다. 두 개의 서버로 인해 알렉사의 응답 속도가 조금은 느려졌지만, 아마존은 원활한 응답을 위해 개선 방법을 상시 개발하고 있다고 전했다.
알렉사가 탑재된 후 탑승자는 자동차에 내장된 음성 인식 서비스를 통해 내비게이션을 설정할 수 있다. BMW 대변인은 “스마트폰을 통해 길을 찾거나, 자동차에 유선으로 연결하는 것과는 비교가 안 되는 수준”이라고 말했다.
BMW 대변인은 “내장형 SIM 카드를 사용해 자동차에 최적화된 기술을 사용해서 BMW에 걸맞은 기능들을 제공한다”고 전했다.
최근 BMW는 마이크로소프트(Microsoft)와 아주어(Azure) 클라우드와 함께 작업을 시작했다. 알렉사와 다른 강점을 가지고 있는 인공지능 비서 코타나를 함께 도입할 시, BMW의 생산성은 더 높아질 것으로 예측된다.
BMW는 탑승자가 알렉사를 어떻게 사용하는지에 따라 서비스를 추가 조정할 것이라고 전하며, 클라우드를 통해 실행되는 알렉사 덕분에 업데이트는 쉽고 빠르게 출시될 것이라고 설명했다.
BMW will in a few days start rolling out to many of its drivers support for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. The fact that BWM is doing this doesn’t come as a surprise, given that it has long talked about its plans to bring Alexa — and potentially other personal assistants like Cortana and the Google Assistant — to its cars. Ahead of its official launch in Germany, Austria, the U.S. and U.K. (with other countries following at a later date), I went to Munich to take a look at what using Alexa in a BMW is all about.
As Dieter May, BMW’s senior VP for digital products told me earlier this year, the company has long held that in-car digital assistants have to be more than just an “Echo Dot in a cup holder,” meaning that they have to be deeply integrated into the experience and the rest of the technology in the car. And that’s exactly what BMW has done here — and it has done it really well.
What maybe surprised me the most was that we’re not just talking about the voice interface here. BMW is working directly with the Alexa team at Amazon to also integrate visual responses from Alexa. Using the tablet-like display you find above the center console of most new BMWs, the service doesn’t just read out the answer but also shows additional facts or graphs when warranted. That means Alexa in a BMW is a lot more like using an Echo Show than a Dot (though you’re obviously not going to be able to watch any videos on it).
In the demo I saw, in a 2015 BMW X5 that was specifically rigged to run Alexa ahead of the launch, the display would activate when you ask for weather information, for example, or for queries that returned information from a Wikipedia post.
What’s cool here is that the BMW team styled these responses using the same design language that also governs the company’s other in-car products. So if you see the weather forecast from Alexa, that’ll look exactly like the weather forecast from BMW’s own Connected Drive system. The only difference is the “Alexa” name at the top-left of the screen.
All of this sounds easy, but I’m sure it took a good bit of negotiation with Amazon to build a system like this, especially because there’s an important second part to this integration that’s quite unique. The queries, which you start by pushing the usual “talk” button in the car (in newer models, the Alexa wake word feature will also work), are first sent to BMW’s servers before they go to Amazon. BMW wants to keep control over the data and ensure its users’ privacy, so it added this proxy in the middle. That means there’s a bit of an extra lag in getting responses from Amazon, but the team is working hard on reducing this, and for many of the queries we tried during my demo, it was already negligible.
As the team told me, the first thing it had to build was a way to switch that can route your queries to the right service. The car, after all, already has a built-in speech recognition service that lets you set directions in the navigation system, for example. Now, it has to recognize that the speaker said “Alexa” at the beginning of the query, then route it to the Alexa service. The team also stressed that we’re talking about a very deep integration here. “We’re not just streaming everything through your smartphone or using some plug-and-play solution,” a BMW spokesperson noted.
“You get what you’d expect from BMW, a deep integration, and to do that, we use the technology we already have in the car, especially the built-in SIM card.”
One of the advantages of Alexa’s open ecosystem is its skills. Not every skill makes sense in the context of the car, and some could be outright distracting, so the team is curating a list of skills that you’ll be able to use in the car.
It’s no secret that BMW is also working with Microsoft (and many of its cloud services run on Azure). BMW argues that Alexa and Cortana have different strengths, though, with Cortana being about productivity and a connection to Office 365, for example. It’s easy to imagine a future where you could call up both Alexa and Cortana from your car — and that’s surely why BMW built its own system for routing voice commands and why it wants to have control over this process.
BMW tells me that it’ll look at how users will use the new service and tune it accordingly. Because a lot of the functionality runs in the cloud, updates are obviously easy and the team can rapidly release new features — just like any other software company.