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Watson at the Wheel: How IBM plans to power your drive

“It’s the biggest reinvention going on since the invention of the wheel.”

That’s the general consensus of pretty much everyone in the automotive industry, but those specific words came from David Taylor, director of connected services for IBM-partner Panasonic. Taylor joined an IBM panel at the Detroit Auto Show to highlight the complete reinvention of the supply chain, business model, and more that is currently underway in the industry. Even traffic management might change, Taylor noted.

And IBM wants to be a part of it. Well, IBM wants Watson to be a part of it. The same technology that mastered chess and Jeopardy may someday be your co-pilot. Strap on that seatbelt, driving’s about to get interesting.

Related: IBM’s unveils the brain-inspired cognitive computer

The powerhouse technology company unveiled its vision of the self-driving, self-enabling, connected car at the 2016 NAIAS show Tuesday morning through a video showing how Watson might be built into the dashboard.

In the video, a man cruises along in a vehicle while chit-chatting with Watson, and Watson appears mainly to put the info back in infotainment. Watson controls the music system, offering insight on the artists currently playing — where they gigged last and what music was listened to recently — guidance about steering based on the weather, advice about nearby shopping, and so on. The computer is shown having a casual conversation with the driver, responding naturally with plain-spoken insights.

Watson wouldn’t control any critical subsystems such as steering, collision avoidance, and so on, says IBM. This is likely because the system is entirely cloud-based: Lose connectivity and you’d be likely to drift into the car next to you. The entire system would hinge heavily on in-car connectivity, something AT&T and Verizon have been pushing heavily in recent years. Thanks to those companies — and notably, GM’s OnStar program — 4G connections are growing common in cars. Still, even with a solid connection, some features clearly must remain baked directly into the vehicle.

But given Watson’s phenomenal natural language processing skills, it seems like a solid fit for the space, far smarter and more capable than the phone-sharing features from Apple and Google or the limited voice-recognition in today’s vehicles.

Related: The next 10 years in car tech will make the last 30 look like just a warm-up

Adam Steinberg, who leads IBM’s cognitive solutions practice, told Digital Trends that his company is talking with numerous partners, though he declined to identify any specifics or offer a timeline for when such functionality might become a reality. While IBM is prepared to go to market with the technology today, he said, it’s clearly visionary. Yet current in-car systems are capable of supporting it, he added, despite the heavy processing power required by Watson.

To call voice-commands and voice-recognition in today’s vehicles limited does a disservice to limits. Many consumers likely have tried the features, and most have probably put it aside. Beyond “Call Mom,” the systems simply aren’t very capable. Watson could change that, letting someone ask questions and explore information in real time. Someday, anyway.

IBM also used the venue to reveal the results of a new survey about how consumers plan to use vehicles over the next 10 years. The survey of more than 16,000 people in 16 different countries, titled “A New Relationship — People and Cars,” revealed a high level of interest not just in self-driving but self-enabling cars: vehicles that can learn, heal, drive, and socialize.”

These capabilities include autonomous, self-driving cars that can be fixed without human intervention, as well as the implementation of cognitive computing to learn and assimilate to the driver’s behaviors, to the vehicle itself, and to the surrounding environment.