Automakers have been trying to replicate the “iPhone experience” with in-car tech for years, so it should come as little surprise that one has finally teamed with Apple to deliver the real deal. On Monday, Chevrolet announced that it would integrate Apple’s Siri virtual assistant into the 2014 Sonic and Spark. By pairing the cars with a compatible iPhone, drivers can talk to their cars and get answers on the fly, no manual input needed. I had the opportunity for a brief hands on with Chevrolet’s Siri-infused 2014 Chevrolet Sonic RS.
The term “hands on” may be a bit of a misnomer here; the whole point is to remove the driver’s need to take his hands off the wheel. Siri is typically activated by holding down the iPhone’s home button, but Chevrolet eliminates this step by placing a dedicated button on the steering wheel’s button cluster. Truthfully, we would have liked to see some sort of Siri-specific icon, but instead it looks like your typical talk button. Nothing fancy, but it gets the job done.
Once engaged, Siri acts like she normally would. I asked for stock quotes, weather forecasts, directions, and more. In turn, Siri replied in a generally speedy manner, with voice responses coming through the vehicle’s speakers. Still, don’t go thinking that you can ask Siri whatever you want. For requests that involve more complex answers, Siri simply won’t respond. For example, I asked Siri what a giraffe looked like and got nothing, even though Siri would normally show a photo of a giraffe on the phone. Though it might seem like a drawback, it’s quite intentional: Asking questions that require a picture, graph, or any sort of visual component would require the driver to take her eyes off the road. Still, it would be nice to have Siri’s full functionality when the vehicle is at a standstill.
Chevy engineers have been working closely with Apple since June in anticipation of Siri’s official automotive debut. They wanted to offer drivers the convenience of their smartphones with streamlined controls optimized for the car. The iPhone’s ubiquity and Siri’s ability to deliver a wide array of information using purely voice commands made teaming with Apple an obvious choice.
Generally, voice recognition technology has an overwhelming tendency to disappoint. Users either don’t speak loud enough, or the technology has trouble recognizing names and regional accents. I didn’t really witness any of these pitfalls during our hands on time. Composing a text message was as easy as speaking it aloud. Obviously, longer and more complex message leave a greater margin for error, but that’s to be expected. Making a phone call was also trouble free; I was able to choose a contact from my iPhone’s contact list by simply saying the name. My 84-year-old grandma had trouble understanding me regardless of how loud I spoke – but it’s no fault of Siri’s. Of course, we’re not sure how easy it will be for Siri to hear commands with road noise, but considering I was in small industrial showroom with throngs of other journalists chattering away, Siri seems able to cope with background noise.
I didn’t have as much time with Siri as I would have liked, but even with my limited exposure, it’s clear that Spark and Sonic drivers will be able to get a lot of mileage out of it. Being able to ask for directions, compose and receive text messages, and a myriad of other functions simply by speaking is not only convenient, it’s significantly safer than fiddling with a touchscreen. Again, riding on Apple’s technology may not be groundbreaking – it’s more common sense than anything else – but the end result works.