Renault Innovation Silicon Valley has teamed up with global connected car startup CloudMade to create My Driving Partner, an intuitive aid designed to help drivers improve their overall driving performance.

Virtual assistant: Renault shows tech giants who's the boss at connected cars

Virtual assistants are all the rage just now, but there is actually nothing really new about the concept of a technical system serving as an assistant to human users. We can find a broad range of ‘assistants’ in the cars currently on the market but they are often well out of sight, such as for example the four-wheel drive systems that, among other things, improve road-holding. Indeed an automobile ‘assistant’ may be visible, it may be a sound system, or it may be totally imperceptible to the user’s eye and/or touch.

“The assistant of the future will follow a similar path, the aim being to give the driver an easier life,‟ Lionel Cordesses, Innovation Project Manager at Renault Innovation Silicon Valley (RISV), told the audience at the Virtual Assistant Summit hosted by RE•WORK, which took place in San Francisco on 26-27 January. Renault is currently working to develop a virtual coach called My Driving Partner, “which learns your driving style and helps you to become a smoother driver,” says the company website. “Most accidents take place during our daily, repetitive journeys. Our assistant is intended to promote smooth, safe driving,‟ Cordesses underlined.

Giving car drivers a choice

In order to coach the driver, the virtual assistant first of all gathers data on the kind of driving behaviour shown so far by the car driver and draws up a driver profile. “We create a sort of dynamic model of the driver’s behaviour,‟ explained Cordesses. The system then geolocates the driver so as to be able to identify upcoming dangers and obstacles and notify him/her of such hazards. To design the prototype, Renault Innovation Silicon Valley teamed up with the San Francisco offices of CloudMade, a startup that provides complete solutions for connected, self-learning vehicles.

My Driving Partner is based on a gaming model, enabling the driver to win points through his/her driving performance. RISV staff have already tested the assistant on a fleet of twenty vehicles and Lionel Cordesses has drawn two conclusions from the first users’ feedback. In the first place, the assistant tends to have a placebo effect: the driver feels that his/her behaviour is being observed and pays more attention. In the second place, the assistant gives advice only rarely – once or twice per trip – which is not intrusive and encourages the driver to take the information or suggestions on board.

Interface de My Driving Partner

My Driving Partner Interface

Assistants not all that new

It is interesting to note that the idea of providing assistance, whether mechanical, technical or computer-based, to car drivers has been around for over a century. In 1911, three US engineers, including the inventor, engineer and businessman Charles Kettering, founder of Delco Electronics, which later became a subsidiary of General Motors, invented the first electric starter motor, a true innovation with which all Cadillac cars were equipped from 1912 onwards. Much more recently, in 1983, Renault came out with the Renault 11 Electronic, a model which had a dashboard computer with colour screen and used computer-generated speech. This was one of the first cars in the world to have an undeniably futuristic electronic assistant embedded.

Au CES, Toyota a fait la démonstration de Concept-i, une voiture dotée d'un assistant virtuel, Yui

At CES, Toyota demonstrated the Concept-i, a car embedded with a virtual assistant called Yui

If 2016 can lay claim to being the Year of the Virtual Assistant, CES 2017 showed that the trend is continuing. At the show, Toyota unveiled a prototype for a self-driving car which incorporates a virtual assistant called Yui. The assistant starts out by trying to find out the likes and dislikes of its driver. During the demonstrations at CES, users were asked to fill in a questionnaire so as to speed up the process, but in the normal course of events Yui will analyse user data drawn from the social networks and the user’s connected objects. The assistant will answer the user’s questions and also ask a few such as: Where are you going? Would you like to stop off and do some shopping (given that this is one of the user’s favourite activities). When the driver is at the wheel, Yui will warn him/her of any looming hazards, will take over control of the vehicle at need, and can also analyse the driver’s emotions based on facial recognition. In addition, the assistant is able to transfer from one vehicle to another, also adapting to any changes in lifestyle. Toyota, which has been working on this development at the company Research Institute, revealed that Yui is probably still a long way from real-world launch.

 

In similar vein, US graphics processing and system-on-a-chip specialist Nvidia announced that it was developing a platform fed by artificial intelligence, that will be connected up to sensors placed both inside and outside the car. The company says that, for the moment, the job of this smart co-pilot will be to check drivers’ attention levels and warn them of any approaching obstacles.

While these initiatives are still very much at the prototype stage, both Toyota and Nvidia are offering us an interesting vision of the future which is rather different from Renault’s My Driving Partner approach. Toyota and Nvidia argue that the virtual assistant embedded in the vehicle of tomorrow will be ‘horizontal’ – i.e. a general-purpose assistant like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. By contrast, Renault has decided to focus on developing a virtual companion able to carry out a number of highly specific tasks. “The success of our prototype shows that without adding a lot of software and hardware but using Cloud computing, we’re able to create an ultra-specialised, efficient ‘vertical’ assistant,‟ Lionel Cordesses told the Virtual Assistant Summit audience.

 
By Pauline Canteneur