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Alibaba joins craze for intelligent car systems with smart speaker

Tmall Genie

China's e-commerce giant Alibaba Group is set to embed its smart speaker into the intelligent Internet-connected vehicles built by three global carmakers.

Alibaba's Artificial Intelligence Labs has signed agreements with Daimler AG, Volkswagen AG and Volvo, which allow the Internet-connected cars produced by the three automakers to be connected with Alibaba's AliGenie-powered Tmall Genie, a voice assistant service analogous to Amazon's smart, hands-free speaker Echo and Apple's Siri-controlled HomePod.

Tmall Genie will provide owners of Daimler, Volkswagen and Volvo cars with convenient home-to-car services. For instance, users will be able to monitor their cars' condition and plan routes at home by simply speaking to the smart speaker, which already has functions including web search, music playback, voice-activated shopping and smart home control. Meanwhile, drivers can control Tmall Genie-connected home appliances inside their cars.

"Artificial Intelligence Plus Cars" is a set of solution that Alibaba's Artificial Intelligence Labs offers to automakers eyeing smart cars, as the e-commerce giant is considering integrating its AliGenie with the vehicle-mounted operating systems in an effort to build a cloud-based ecosystem supporting voice command, navigation and entertainment features.

In October 2017, Alibaba's Artificial Intelligence Labs launched the AliGenie platform, which is open to all the third-party players from home and abroad zooming in on the development of artificial intelligence-powered voice interaction systems. The introduction of the AliGenie platform came three months after Alibaba launched the Tmall Genie smart speaker, which has more than 200 applications, of which less than 50 were developed by Alibaba itself.

In March this year, Alibaba's Artificial Intelligence Labs added a visual recognition function into the latest version of the AliGenie platform, which enabled the Tmall Genie smart speaker to scan and read children's books and medicine boxes.

The voice and visual recognition capabilities of Tmall Genie could free up drivers' hands when they perform the in-car task of route navigation, thus improving the driving experience, Caixin quoted Qian Xue, general manager of Alibaba's Artificial Intelligence Labs, as saying.

Heinz-Willi Vassen, research and development director at Audi China, said that the introduction of the voice recognition technology into vehicles' operating systems would create a "more natural human-computer interaction in the cars", which helps drivers "stay focused on the roads" and "avoid distraction from navigation", according to the Caixin report.

The first batch of Internet-connected cars equipped with Tmall Genie are expected to be available in June, with Volvo's XC90, S90 and XC60 models being confirmed to feature the voice assistant function. What's more, Mercedes-Benz said that it would include Tmall Genie into its Connected Service 2.0 vehicle-mounted system, the report said.

Facing the competition with some foreign-made voice interaction services like Amazon's Alexa-powered Echo, which several famous car brands such as BMW and Ford have selected for their vehicles' operating systems, China's technology companies have started to catch up. Domestically, Alibaba has taken the lead in the race to develop smart speakers by selling more than 2 million Tmall Genies, while Tencent just released its first similar product this year. And Baidu is focusing on improving its artificial intelligence-driven DuerOS, which boasts strong voice recognition capability that connects users with their homes, cars and wearable devices.

These efforts by the Chinese technology giants are backed by the government, which in 2015 announced the Made in China 2025 plan that identifies Internet-connected cars as part of a national strategy. The craze for developing the smart, Internet-connected cars gives a golden opportunity for the domestic technology companies to leverage their start-of-the-art artificial intelligence-powered technologies like voice assistant that can be applied in cars' operating systems.

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