BBC TopGear
BBC TopGear
Subscribe to Top Gear magazine
Sign up to our Top Gear Magazine
Top Gear Advice

ChatGPT: what is it, how does it work and why is it in a car?

AI is being rolled out in places you never thought possible

What the diddly-doo is ChatGPT?

*Deep sigh.* It’s that artificial intelligence programming thing a load of people were using last year to write funny emails to their boss about pulling a sickie.


In its own words, “ChatGPT is a state-of-the-art language model developed by OpenAI". In real English, it's an artificial-intelligence-based programme designed to 'understand' request-based prompts and respond, mimicking the conversational style of humans.

Advertisement - Page continues below

Not unlike your Amazon Alexa or Google Home digital assistant, it can answer random questions on different topics. But it goes a bit further.

For example, it can hold a conversation, translate from one language to another and create the content or summarise the context of emails, messages and essays. It can also infer sentiment from analysing text. Pretty clever, eh?

(At least clever enough to earn a $10bn investment from Microsoft.)

And now, Peugeot, Volkswagen, Citroen and DS have all integrated it into their cars.

How does it work?

We tried it in a DS during the pilot period in 2023, and our experience was... mixed. DS is using ChatGPT integration to broaden the capability of its Iris voice control suite, which it says is quite limiting. To date, Iris has worked off a script to call people, set the radio station and adjust the climate, etc.

Since ChatGPT's analysis engine can coordinate your GPS, your question and interrogate its knowledge band, it can provide answers to stuff while you’re driving – arguably making it more like a digital assistant. Thus, if you find yourself wondering “What is that weird building in front of me?” you can ask the car and it will (maybe) have the answer.

Advertisement - Page continues below


Yeah, as we say, our experience was mixed. If you ask it to tell you a story about a girl called Sara who lived in a castle and made friends with dragons, it can narrate that folksy tale in a heartbeat. And we can totally see the value of that for parents of little ones.

But for some of the more straightforward stuff, it’s a bit hit and miss. Granted, it was polite and apologetic when it didn’t know the answer.

During the process for writing an email or sending a text message, it started well, then would interrupt when you were giving it the body of the text you wanted to send.

Sounds a bit rubbish.

In fairness to DS, we only had the car for an hour and the beauty of these kinds of machine-learning services is in the... learning. The longer you spend with the car feature, the more accurate it gets. It gets used to your phrasing, your accent and it’s always refining its knowledge using the bank of data stored in the cloud.

Top Gear

Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.

Bank of data? Thought I'd seen that movie recently.

That's Bank of Dave. Meanwhile, in ChatGPT's cloud-based bank of data, bazillions of sound files are stored and the programme – using the same predictive efforts you see when using search engines – hears your prompt as a speech pattern. Having played a digital-file version of 'Snap' with the question, it sends an appropriate pre-learned answer.

Where once upon a time this was crude and slow, analysis using AI makes this process far quicker than before by working in real time. As each person inputs into it, it’ll learn from them and store that knowledge to disseminate to other users with the same prompt. That’s the joy of artificial intelligence.

Also, DS told us it encourages users to tell the system when it's made an error so it can learn faster.

So many questions. Let's talk drawbacks...

Well, for a start, it always needs a data connection – and we've all hit The Great Deadspots of Britain's Motorways. Not to mention the latency of the UK countryside.

What's more, this particular ChatGPT integration only has knowledge stored until the end of 2022. Although it does know the answer to some stuff that’s more recent, ChatGPT can only verify up to that date... so far. DS tells us if you’re asking it for last weekend’s football results, you might not get them.

Erm, ok. Any other limitations?

Absolutely. It didn’t seem to want to toggle between the system menus in the car and a couple of times, it responded saying it was confused by the question.

As with opinions, there’s an official line. ChatGPT said: “I don't have personal opinions or feelings, so I can't express thoughts or feelings about being integrated with the DS Automobiles Iris voice control suite. However, I can provide some insights into potential benefits and considerations of such an integration.” It goes on to reiterate the advantages of the service.

For a price right?

Actually, it’s free initially. And on any new car it’s expected to be available for three years, as part of the Connect Pack Plus suite – which, yes, does carry a subscription fee after the initial period. But it’s not just for brand-new cars.

Any DS4 since 2021, the DS7s sold since the end of 2022 and all DS3 and DS9 customers will have a remote update that will offer them the option of enabling the feature. All those customers will be contacted with an email and asked to verify a link and go from there.

Anything else to note?

Yeah, recently the AI system starting spouting random gibberish, like "forsake the new fruition morsel in your beloved cookery" as one user reported. The issue, corrected minutes later, was chalked up to a configuration issue. But these unexpected responses demonstrate how youthful the technology is.

More from Top Gear

See more on DS

Subscribe to the Top Gear Newsletter

Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, you agree to receive news, promotions and offers by email from Top Gear and BBC Studios. Your information will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

BBC TopGear

Try BBC Top Gear Magazine