CES 2024: VW, Cerence Integrate ChatGPT in IDA Voice Assistant

The ChatGPT bot will be available in Europe in current MEB and MQB evo models from VW Group brands that currently use the voice assistant.

Volkswagen used an ID.7 as the demo vehicle for IDA at CES 2024. (SAE/Sebastian Blanco)

ChatGPT has entered the car. At CES 2024, Volkswagen and technology partner Cerence introduced an update to IDA, VW’s in-car voice assistant, so it can now use ChatGPT to expand what’s possible using voice commands in vehicles.

Axel Heinrich, head of innovation and system architecture for the Volkswagen brand, and Maik Rohde, VW’s head of connected infotainment development, pose with the ID.7 at CES 2024. (SAE/Sebastian Blanco)

VW said the ChatGPT bot will be available in Europe in current MEB and MQB evo models from VW Group brands that currently use the IDA voice assistant. That includes some members of the ID family — the ID.7, ID.4, ID.5 and ID.3 — as well as the new Tiguan, Passat and Golf models. VW brands Seat, Škoda, Cupra and VW Commercial Vehicles also will get IDA integration. VW hopes to bring IDA to other markets, including North America, but did not make any timing announcements.

Currently, IDA understands five languages: U.S. English, German, UK English, Spanish and Czech. Eight more are on the way: French, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Swedish, Portuguese, Norwegian and Danish.

VW’s IDA chatbot can speak answers to questions about local landmarks, but only in some circumstances. (SAE/Sebastian Blanco)

IDA’s connection to ChatGPT comes from Cerence, which was spun out of Nuance as an independent company in 2019. Ida’s behavior is governed by Cerence Chat Pro, which uses a smart arbitration mechanism in VW’s voice command software to distinguish between three types of queries and route them to the right service for a response.

The embedded system handles simple functionalities that do not need a connection to function, like adjusting the temperature or the radio. For higher-level tasks, like providing real-time weather data, the system uses cloud services provided by Cerence. Everything else — “the queries that the system today cannot tackle,” as Vania La Rocca, Cerence’s director of product operations, told SAE Media — goes to the new integrated third-party large language model (LLM), in this case, ChatGPT. Cerence enabled the chat service on the cloud side without requiring any changes to the embedded software.

VW’s IDA chatbot uses ChatGPT to understand some spoken commands that the previous system could not parse. By default, it responds to “Hello Ida” or Hello ID.” (SAE/Sebastian Blanco)

“The goal is to reduce as much as possible the cases where the system will answer, ‘I don’t know how to do that,’” La Rocca said.

At CES, the companies showed that IDA can understand natural speech, but it wasn’t a perfect score. During an on-stage demo, the car misunderstood the cheeky “Who makes the best cars?” as “Who makes the best cases?” and returned a list of places to buy protection for a smartphone.

IDA is limited by legal problems, as well, particularly when it comes to how the AI responds to location-based questions. Asking “What’s the weather here?” will work, for example, but maybe not “What’s that castle on my left?”

The reason lies in privacy rules. For weather data, for example, VW and Cerence have an agreement so the car can share its location with Cerence, which then finds out if it’s raining or not. But VW and Cerence can’t give ChatGPT this location information so it can then determine where “here” is to identify the castle.

“Today, due to legal reasons we are not allowed to forward the position of the customer to ChatGPT,” VW’s head of innovation and system architecture, Axel Heinrich, told SAE Media. “But if you’re asking, ‘Hey, Ida, I have reached Hamburg, and I have two more hours before my next appointment. Can you give me a recommendation?’ You will get the answer because you have included Hamburg as a destination question.”

IDA has four built-in privacy levels that an owner can select, ranging from zero personal data to the most open, which shares location, destination and some anonymized details. But even if the driver gives consent to use localization data, not all of that data can be sent to all of Cerence’s connected services.

“We’re not allowed to give all the geo data to some other database outside the car,” Maik Rohde, VW’s head of connected infotainment development, told SAE Media.

Finding alternative routes

To get IDA to respond when drivers use positioning words like “here” or “on my left” or “behind me,” VW and Cerence designed the system to provide a list of nearby points of interest. Karim Amor, function owner of IDA at VW, told SAE Media that finding alternative ways to get IDA to respond correctly shows how privacy concerns and technological advances can co-exist.

“From where I stand, we have not hit any hard boundary that hinders us from implementing any use cases that customers really need,” he told SAE Media. “Currently, we are seeing so many opportunities with LLMs now being available that don’t require any additional personal information in the cloud, and that will definitely be the next thing.”

That “next thing” is likely to be ways to make ever-more-complicated cars easier to use, so you can just ask to connect your smartphone via Bluetooth instead of hunting through multiple menu pages.

“What customers really like is some kind of help with functionality, like the car manual,” Amor said. “That will probably be the next step with integrating the LLMs because that’s something we see where there is a real customer need and it doesn’t imply any personal information.”

La Rocca said Cerence has data to back this up.

“The UI of the system is becoming more and more complex, with more functionalities and menus that you need to navigate,” she said. “Being able to reach what you need via voice is going to make it much easier to interact with the system. We’re also seeing that the more complex HMIs are becoming, the more we see an increase in the usage of the voice interface.”

IDA’s voice interface isn’t as bad at answering “Who makes the best cars?” as the press conference in the basement of a Las Vegas hotel suggested. During a later product demo held outside in a cold Nevada afternoon, IDA’s smart arbitration mechanism correctly heard the question and routed it through its approved list of behaviors.

“As an in-car voice assistant for Volkswagen, I might be a bit biased,” IDA said. “But in my opinion, Volkswagen makes amazing cars.”