At one time not all that long ago, cars had a warning light on the dashboard that simply said "ENGINE." That's pretty vague. Really, it might just as well have said "CAR." Some newer automobiles now have codes that appear on the console, which the driver must then look up in an index in the vehicle's owner's manual. Working with Audi, Germany's Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) Institute of Business Informatics is now working on taking things a step farther, with the development of an on-screen avatar that will talk to drivers, and even understand their spoken questions.

The experimental Avatar-based Virtual Co-driver System (AviCoS) is designed to work with the monitor of the Audi Mulitmedia Interface, which already comes standard on all of the automaker's vehicles.

The system uses artificial intelligence to understand drivers' spoken questions about their car, and responds verbally. Descriptive images and videos also appear on-screen, with the animated avatar character pointing out relevant details. In Touch and Tell mode, drivers can also receive explanations of various vehicle functions by touching the appropriate areas of the screen.

As with many such driver assistance technologies, there is the possibility that AviCoS could distract drivers from paying attention to the road. The designers have somewhat addressed that problem, by suppressing first the image of the avatar, and then all of the graphics, as the vehicle's speed increases. Drivers remain able to converse with the avatar, however, which could still be distracting.

Down the road, the TUM researchers would like to see the system being able to identify the driver's state of mind, by analyzing their tone of voice and speech rhythm. If AviCoS determined that the driver was getting stressed out, it could lessen their sensory overload by suppressing its video output. Working with the car's other systems, it could also do things such as instructing the navigation system to provide directions earlier, and more often.