There has been a long history of voice systems in cars, but it's a history littered with awkward application, frustration and ultimately, functions that never worked. 

But it's now 2019 and systems like Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are tearing up the voice control playbook and popularising voice over touch control. The secret is that these systems are smart, they learn, they are connected and they can interpret what you mean from the things you say. 

Car manufacturers are facing a fork in the road: attempt to develop a system to compete or integrate one of those growing platforms to make the user experience in cars better. BMW has decided to develop its own - and it's actually pretty good.

Properly handsfree 

BMW is embracing hot words for its new system, so you don't have to press a button to trigger it. It's always listening. If you're part of the Alexa generation - you have an Amazon Echo or similar at home - then this will be entirely familiar. You just say the words and things swing into action.

You'll then be able to ask questions and you don't have to stick to a rigid format for these, because it understands different ways of saying different things.

Having had a rocky relationship with in-car voice systems, we weren't expecting much, but we were pleasantly surprised - and this is coming from someone who uses voice control at home all the time. So that's a big thumbs up for BMW. 

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How is Hey BMW different? 

Sure, there are other smart assistants finding their way into cars. BMW offers Apple CarPlay - which means Siri is in there - and also moved to include Amazon Alexa too recently. Others offer Android Auto, opening the door to Google Assistant, again offering a very dynamic voice system in your car. So why is Hey BMW different? 

Because it can control car functions. 

That's markedly different to using a third-party voice assistant in your car. Those other systems excel in things like music control, weather, making calls or sending messages - but they don't actually interface with the car. They just sit in a layer accommodated by the car, using your phone to do the heavy lifting and jumping over your car's screen and speakers. 

Hey BMW knows your car. It is able to open menus and settings that other assistants can't reach. Want to defrost your rear window? BMW will do it. Want to change your climate control? BMW will do it. Want to find the settings to change the bass level on your music system. Yes, Hey BMW will get you there. 

In some cases it will tell you to use the manual controls, but often it will get you to the correct screen in the infotainment system before doing so.

It can also tell you sensible things about your route, like how far it is to your final destination and if you have the fuel to get there. Yes, it will report the remaining range of the car and we can easily see how it will be able to do things like find a charger for your electric car on your route - without the need to dig around in satnav menus. 

In addition to these things, Hey BMW will do what you expect it to - it will switch to BBC Radio 4, it will play music from a streaming service (if you have one connected), download music to local storage or it will navigate to a destination, having searched for exactly what you want. 

We asked it to find Nando's and it found Nando's - there's no need to go through the rigid hierarchy of questions like some older systems - it just works.

It's a learning AI system

One of the most appealing things about BMW's intelligent voice assistant is that it uses AI - artificial intelligence. It's a learning system that will be able to learn how you use it, to be better placed to meet your demands.

Naturally, this is something that BMW owners will get to experience and BMW test drivers or motoring journalists, ahem, will not - because they don't get to spend prolonged periods of time with the same car. 

BMW told us that it will learn things like your commute, when you turn on the seat heating and those sorts of repeat actions, so that it can do some of it for you. There's a lot more that we've not been able to dig into, but we're impressed. 

At a basic level, the BMW system interpreted what we said and was capable, able to deliver meaningful results. It's in stark contrast to older car systems that were, basically, useless. Now you'll be able to say "hey BMW turn off the music" or "hey BMW turn down the temperature" while you stay focused on the road.

If there's a catch - and there always is - it's that BMW's intelligent voice assistant is only free for the first 3 years when you get a car. After that, BMW tells us, there will be a subscription cost, which is still to be determined.