BMW showed off hallucination-free AI at CES 2024

BMW showed off hallucination-free AI at CES 2024


The wave of AI hysteria at the 2024 CES in Las Vegas was predictable in many ways. It is, after all, the single biggest tech trend of the moment, and what startup wouldn’t want to be part of that buzzy zeitgeist?

To me, the widespread embrace by car manufacturers is a little more surprising. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen all had AI-related announcements at CES, unexpected because, though exciting, technologies like ChatGPT have proven unreliable when it comes to minor details like delivering useful, factual information.

For its implementation, BMW had a compelling solution to the problem: Take the power of a large language model, like Amazon’s Alexa LLM, but only allow it to cite information from internal BMW documentation about the car.

It’s restrictive—a process called Retrieval-Augmented Generation. The result was an AI interaction far more restrictive than demonstrated by the other manufacturers. Regardless, it’s a massive step forward over current voice assistants, and it’s coming to today’s cars later this year.

It will simply be part of the company’s current Intelligent Personal Assistant. Think of it like a sentient car manual, able to tell you anything about your car, explain the why, and give it a lot of nuance.

For example, you can ask your BMW not only to enable a given drive mode, but also about the differences between the drive modes, and even say something like, “I’m going on a drive on a twisty road. Which drive settings would you recommend?”

That sounds admittedly lame on the surface, but hang on because I think this might be one of the most valuable applications for in-car AI yet. Why? Because many modern cars, particularly premium ones, are ridiculously complex.

They’re riddled with such a dizzying array of features and functions that manufacturers increasingly don’t bother with paper manuals any longer. They’d be too unwieldy to print, for one thing, but beyond that, they’d be out of date as soon as the ink hit the paper.

Trying to keep up with all your car can do has become a nightmare, tamed slightly with the advent of voice assistants. Being able to say, “Turn on the heated steering wheel” has saved me many minutes of poking and prodding through submenus on touchscreen-dependent test cars.

However, those voice assistants are easily stymied if you don’t know the exact name of the feature you’re looking for.

Not only can BMW’s LLM-enhanced voice assistant figure out what you mean even if you don’t use whatever term the company’s branding team came up with, it can even respond to commands like: “Explain that to me like I’m a 5-year-old.”

For example, when asked to explain Efficient mode, the car said: “Efficient mode is like when you’re playing a game, and you want to use as few pieces as possible to win. The car’s systems work together to use as little fuel as possible, which is both good for the environment and your wallet.”

Should you manage to stump this new voice assistant, instead of just saying, “I don’t understand,” it’ll ask questions to get to the root of your request.

If you’re a power user and an automobile enthusiast, this probably doesn’t seem too enchanting. But imagine someone who’s new to or unfamiliar with this wonderful era of mobility, someone who has never owned a car with a touchscreen before. This could boost their ownership experience exponentially.

Now, one crucial disclosure to all this: I wasn’t allowed to interact with the voice assistant myself. BMW’s handlers did all the talking, and I was explicitly asked to sit by quietly while they ran through the demo. That raises the potential for my demo to have been faked, but there were a few hiccups in there that made me confident it was truly and dynamically responding, even if the set of questions at this point is presumably limited.

BMW did say, however, that this is just a first step. Ultimately, the BMW implementation of the Alexa LLM will expand to include more features, like navigation and points of interest.

The company gave no clear idea of when to expect those additional AI-powered discussion topics, but this first step at least is coming soon. BMW says you’ll be able to have these sorts of conversations in its cars running Operating System 9 sometime this summer.

Better yet, it’ll be a free update.

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