The Next High-Tech Tool for the Auto Aftermarket? Voice Assistants

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In the early 1980s, we were first introduced to KITT (short for “Knight Industries Two Thousand”), an artificially-intelligent persona living inside an 1982 Pontiac Trans Am on the iconic American TV Show Knight Rider.

While KITT was outfitted with a dizzying array of sensors and weapons, its most powerful capability was being able to speak to humans. KITT was not just the trusty sidekick for David Hasselhoff, who played the series hero, but a vision of what’s possible at the intersection of the most advanced automotive and conversational AI technologies.

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Some thirty years later, we are living in a time when these sci-fi visions are becoming reality as a result of rapid, converging technological advancements. Today’s cars are jam-packed with enough digital sensors and automation technology to make KITT jealous – and they now come with KITT-like voice assistants onboard.

While today’s drivers are enjoying the benefits of these conversational super-computers-on-wheels, there’s another automotive segment that stands to benefit from voice and conversational AI technology: the aftermarket.

The aftermarket is simultaneously facing a trifecta of market dynamics: a massive shortage of talent (technician demand is outpacing supply by 5:1), a dramatic increase in demand (at 12.2 years, the average age of vehicles is at an all-time high), and a scramble to keep pace with OEM technologies, which can be highly variable across brands. The outcome?

Aftermarket service centers have placed an even-greater emphasis on technician efficiency and productivity to meet demand. At the same time, they are looking for new ways to recruit and retain the next generation of auto service pros - digital natives who have come of age alongside Alexa and Siri.

The The Vast Potential Of Voice Assistants

Enter the vast potential of voice assistants - not just in the car, but in the shop garage. Technicians need quick and reliable access to accurate data about the cars they’re servicing, but retrieving this data can be anything but convenient.

When you’re on the clock, wrenching under a vehicle and need to check a torque spec or a fluid type, the value of voice technology becomes dead-obvious. Sure, you could set your tools down, wash your hands, and walk to the computer terminal to type up a repair database search query, skim for your answer, then walk back to execute the job.

Or, you could stay put, speak your question in natural language (three times faster than you can type) and immediately get just the data you need right there in the bay. Several minutes vs. several seconds. Compound that efficiency over each bay over the course of days and weeks, and you’ve got a force multiplier on shop throughput.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As shops continue to digitize their operations through Shop Management Systems (SMS), they’re creating a treasure trove of data that can directly impacts shop productivity.

Voice interfaces can offer significant advantages when paired with these systems. For always-moving service advisors, how convenient would it be to get immediate answers to “what services did we recommend on Sally’s Jeep last visit?,” or “what’s the ETA on the Integra’s filters?”.

In the bay, technicians could effortlessly clock in and out of jobs by voice, or dictate notes onto repair orders about an additional service a customer might want to consider. By lowering the barrier for SMS use and accelerating data access, information flows more freely to those who need it.

Voice assistants can also handle complex logic and provide proactive recommendations. Envision this: a technician or service advisor verbally logs a vehicle’s odometer at 48,856 miles, and in response, a voice assistant proactively details the recommended maintenance services for 50,000 miles. This allows a shop to easily propose those services to the customer during this visit.

Even digital vehicle inspections, which already eclipse clip-boards in terms of efficiency, could be supercharged with voice. No more fumbling through taps and menus while attempting to check out a vehicle.

“Start the 20 point inspection…wipers are a little loose, log as yellow, snap a photo. OK, next step…” Now you’ve got more attention on the vehicle, less focus on the screen and its visual interface.

While the upside potential of voice in the garage is compelling, delivering on these voice assistant use cases is easier said than done.

It demands a deep knowledge of the voice technical stack, from speech recognition in noisy environments to natural language understanding in the auto knowledge domain (e.g., to process a term like “wheel nut torque” as a common spec request and not have the system mis-hear it as “will not torque”).

When data becomes voice-activated - whether that data relates to vehicle repair guidelines, shop operations, or troubleshooting the car in front of you - everyone benefits. Technicians and service advisors’ jobs become that much easier and more enjoyable. Shop owners attract and retain great talent. And customers get back on the road that much faster.

Eric Turkington is VP of Growth at RAIN Technology, parent company of Ortho, a voice assistant designed for the auto aftermarket (