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Putting AI in cars could be any one of three things: useless, dangerous, or too futuristic to consider. In fact, it’s none — General Motors is leveraging its “long-term strategic relationship” with Microsoft to put a virtual assistant in its vehicles.

Microsoft and GM have been collaborating since 2021 to speed up the commercialization of driverless vehicles, an effort which includes a partnership with Cruise, the automaker’s majority-owned autonomous vehicle unit, and an exclusive cloud agreement with Azure.

Azure has exclusive access to the OpenAI technology that powers ChatGPT, so it’s assumed that GM’s new in-car assistant will leverage this. Of course, the integration doesn’t necessarily mean a chat tool or voice interface will be added to GM vehicles, rather that the foundation models that are used by ChatGPT will be added to vehicles.

“This shift is not just about one single capability like the evolution of voice commands, but instead means that customers can expect their future vehicles to be far more capable and fresh overall when it comes to emerging technologies,” a spokesperson for the company said during an interview with Reuters.

This may placate critics who believe that the so far unreliable nature of ChatGPT is not something that should be taken to the roads. It could also be countered with the fact that the main competition to in-car assistants, smart phones — that tend to be more useful and compatible to driving — impact the 3,500 deaths that distracted driving causes in America every year.

Race to get AI into cars

One reason that car manufacturers like GM are intervening in the in-car assistant arena is that if big tech companies are able to move too far into the automakers’ market, with offerings like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, car companies risk becoming little more than hardware suppliers.

Microsoft is already making efforts to embed technology in vehicles, from infotainment systems to automated driving to operating systems that control battery performance and multiple other functions of a vehicle.

The difference is that a car can’t be quickly rebooted if it freezes. There’s far more pressure on a technologically-enhanced vehicle to work perfectly, without degrading over time — lives are at stake.

Reuters states that the company is “exploring uses,” for ChatGPT technology in its vehicles. GM’s VP Scott Miller said that “ChatGPT is going to be in everything,” explaining that it will program garage door codes, integrate schedules with a calendar, track and report on vehicle maintenance issues and help drivers understand their vehicles.

Some of the ideas do feel logical: if a hazard light comes on in a car, the assistant could even inform a driver whether it’s safe to keep driving or to pull over immediately. In the case of a flat tire, the AI could give advice on how to change it, or pull up vehicle-specific instructions (although the “ChatGPT lies to us we can’t trust AI in cars” argument won’t like that).

Supposedly, integrating AI into cars will enable virtual personal assistants that might even cut out the need for smartphone compatibility.

The vision is probably as follows: businessman gets into his Cadillac in the morning. While the garage doors automatically rise, allowing in the morning sunlight, his virtual assistant reminds him what appointments he has that day, and where, and when. As he pulls off, he is safe in the knowledge that his car is in good health, and his favorite playlist automatically plays.

Is there any need for AI in cars?

This, of course, is but a step towards autonomous self-driving vehicles. However, we can’t help but take a slightly pessimistic view. Putting AI in cars in all well and good, except it isn’t changing much besides cutting smartphones out of the commute. Is it so important not to have to manually Google “how to change a tire”?

More pressing: the environment! Moves towards electric vehicles are being made simultaneously, sure, but can’t AI build some solutions to making public transport more reliable? If we look to Europe, where major cities are increasingly walkable,  putting a virtual assistant in a vehicle feels redundant.

As exciting as the realization of Knight Rider fantasies might be, it’s worth questioning the longevity of the ChatGPT hype and whether our attention shouldn’t be focused elsewhere.