September 18, 2016 — Let me introduce you to Carla, who likely will be a critical member of your BDC and customer support team in the near future.
“She” is also a chatbot billed as being the customer’s friend who knows cars. Carla was designed by California-based startup firm CarLabs to assist people with anything having to do with cars — such as finding the right vehicle to buy; determining which automotive insurance is best; where to service the vehicle; and locating the nearest gas station.
Chatbots are software programs that gather data from numerous sources via API connections and integrates that data with artificial intelligence (AI) to conversationally respond to text requests for information.Typically, chatbots are built to be used on messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, Slack or Kik in addition to being used on websites or regular apps. For example, while on Facebook Messenger, you can message Uber for a ride instead of opening the Uber app. Burger King is developing a chatbot that will let you place an order for pick up.
Because of recent initiatives from Facebook and Microsoft, chatbot hype has exploded over the last year. But, unfortunately, in many cases, the hype has exceeded capabilities as many firms have rushed products to market. It’s important to remember, though, the technology is still in the early stages of development. Within three to five years, we’ll be having text conversations where we may not be able to discern whether we’re talking with a chatbot or a human.
Watching Carla in action, it’s clear CarLabs didn’t rush the product. Although, based on what we’ve seen, she is the first automotive-focused chatbot in the U.S. market, Carla isn’t the first automotive chatbot — that title may go to Fiat of Argentina’s Luigi, which was designed by Avio, a Latin America firm that recently expanded to the U.S. Luigi is a Fiat-focused solution whereas Carla was designed to handle all brands and vehicles.
Operating under the radar, CarLabs took more than two years to develop Carla and her graphical counterpart AutoEQ. Carla is the conversational interface — text her a question and she’ll respond with the appropriate information. “Carla I’m looking for a safe SUV that seats five and gets better than 25 miles per gallon.” Carla is viable on all messaging platforms, such as Facebook Messenger, SMS,or other AI-type platforms such as Siri, Cortana or Alexa.
AutoEQ provides the graphical interface and allows shoppers to express their preferences using natural language — instead of technical spec or automotive jargon. It’s a visual comparison tool that is designed to be informative and fun.
The engine powering Carla and AutoEQ is both comprehensive and complicated. The Lab, a cognitive database designed by CarLabs, gathers and sorts data from thousands of sources. Using algorithms, the Lab then normalizes the data which is then translated into conversational and natural language by CLAPI, CarLab’s API.
CarLabs has set the bar high. Anyone can gather data, but the ability to process it and then respond with accurate answers using conversational and natural language or with an interactive graphical, image is what sets the solution apart. Furthermore, the engine is constantly learning. As she learns about each specific customer’s preferences — both in product and method of speaking — Carla’s responses only get better and more intuitive. This is where the artificial intelligence — also known as machine learning — comes into play. The product is constantly improving.
The company has industry heavy hitters backing it. The CEO Martin Schmitt, ran engineering at Shopzilla before founding NewCars.com, which he sold to Cars.com, where he subsequently led research and development. COO Isabel Sopoglian also was with NewCars.com and ran search marketing for Cars.com.
Co-founder and CRO Uzi Eliahou was in charge of Internet strategy for Packard Bell and NEC Computers before starting digital marketing firm Matchcraft.
Board members and angel investors include Mitch Golub, founder and former president of Cars.com, a $600 million firm when he retired when it sold to Gannett; Kevin Keegan, former president of Insweb and head of research at JD Power and Associates; and Tom McAlear, former COO and CEO of Daimler Chrysler Finance.
Frankly, they have created a “Wow!” product. The question now is, what about the applications?
CarLabs intends for this to be a “B-to-B” play and likely will white-label the product for multiple companies such as automakers, third party companies and dealers. So Carla likely will end up with numerous names or brands and will be tailored to fit the specific needs of each company employing the technology.
When thinking about potential applications, let your imagination run wild. From a dealership perspective, being able to incorporate Carla into the dealership’s online or website chat system could be invaluable. Unlike a human who can only handle a small number of conversations at one time, Carla theoretically engage in millions of conversations simultaneously.
The information available includes make, model, year and complete product specifications on all new vehicles; real time dealer inventory; comparison shopping; trade-in valuations; monthly payment calculations.
It won’t be long before customers will be able to set up a service appointment using Carla while in Facebook Messenger or some other messaging app. It’s going to be real 24/7 access all the time. Also key is the ability to capture those conversations and integrate them into the dealership CRM system.
CarLabs says the benefits of its solutions include:
- Increase customer engagement and conversions for dealers.
- Improve customer service ratings of dealers.
- Assure the role of the franchise dealer in a transforming auto industry.
- Deliver the consistent brand experience the auto OEM wants.
- Capture unprecedented sales data about car buyer decisions and most desired vehicle attributes.
It’s important to remember, this technology is in the early stages of development. So there will be miscues or unrealized expectations — and some of the failures will be spectacular (Google Microsoft Tay for an example). But artificial intelligence is quickly becoming part of our everyday lives and companies that are able to handle a little bit of risk today are going to be the ones helping to write the future.