Message to Self

Lessons, conundrums and opportunities in voice-first EV interfaces

The electric vehicle I’ve been driving lately highlights two different circumstances about the nature of problems and solutions in voice-related interfaces. 

One example is how the correct solution can often leapfrog the perceived solution. Consider the way a cellphone is held in a car. There is no standard, universal phone holder in cars, and in fact most cars don’t even come with a phone holder. You’re left with the perceived solution, which is haphazard aftermarket devices that dangle from air conditioning vents or extend from former cigarette lighters. 

As it turns out, the best solution may be to put one’s phone away entirely. Services like Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto don’t just mirror one’s phone but provide better implementation of the phone’s essential apps on the larger screen that is part of your car. In many cases, these car-specific variants of the apps emphasize voice interaction over typing or even looking. When I receive a text message while driving, it is read to me. If I wish to reply, I can do so verbally, and then that message is turned into text, which is sent to my interlocutor. It’s kind of funny to think that if I am conversing this way with someone in another car, each message undergoes voice-to-text-to-voice conversion. Yes, we might as well call each other, except we’ve learned that asynchronous — even when near-synchronous — communication has its benefits.

Like many solutions, this one can lead to new problems. This week I received a ridiculous automated text message in the car, via CarPlay’s connection with my iPhone. The inbound message was read aloud to me automatically. I responded, out loud, saying that it was a ridiculous message. I intended this comment for the person in the passenger seat. However, technology is about as good with rhetorical comments and social boundaries as it is with irony. The car immediately repeated my statement back to me and asked if I wanted to send it as a reply, which of course wasn’t my intention. I declined.

The other example has to do with solving for inexplicable absences. Of the roughly 250 apps on my phone, fewer than 30 are mirrored via CarPlay on my car’s dashboard screen, and two of those are car-specific. The majority are things like audiobook apps, music apps, and communication tools. 

The biggest surprise is a glaring omission: the lack of a way to record a voice memo. It’s worth remembering that the iPad didn’t always have the Voice Memos app that comes with the iPhone. And the app hasn’t come to CarPlay — at least not yet. In fact, none of the audio recording apps on my phone (such as Just Press Record and Motiv) appear in CarPlay. 

I record a lot of voice memos, to the point that I worry I might become Michael Keaton’s character in the 1982 movie Night Shift (“Why don’t they just feed the tuna fish mayonnaise!”). I do it before bed each night, just rattling off random thoughts before I close my eyes, and I do it while going for walks. I don’t drive all that often, but I’m used to using my phone to record voice memos. I have it set so that if I tap three times quickly on the back of the phone, voice-memo recording commences immediately (as a feature within the Apple Notes app). 

In the absence of a proper voice memo app in CarPlay, I looked for a solution. There appear to be two. If you have Siri on (which I don’t), you can request that it records an audio note. Alternatively, you can add yourself as a contact in the Messages app, and use the app to send yourself a note via voice-to-text messaging. (The latter is a corollary to the pre-cellphone habit I had of calling my answering machine at home and leaving myself an occasional message.) 

So, there’s a business opportunity for free: if anyone out there wants to make a CarPlay voice memo app, you seem to have little competition — and at least one user.

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