Automakers race to fix voice recognition systems The Detroit News

Automakers race to fix voice recognition systems The Detroit News

Automakers race to fix voice recognition systems

Colin and Rachel Britton have a failure to communicate when they slip into their $95,000 Mercedes GL500. Not with each other, with their car. Its voice-recognition system is dumbfounded by their British accents, especially Rachel’s.

“The car just doesn’t understand,” said Colin Britton, a software executive in Lexington, Mass. whose wife tries to trick the system with a Southern drawl. That makes him and their three teenagers laugh uproariously, which flummoxes the system, too. “We find it hilariously funny.”

Most drivers aren’t amused. They’re demanding the ability to converse with their motor vehicles as never before, to make calls or enter destinations on navigation systems. Driving the desire for the car talk is the surge in use of smartphones that are pretty good at obeying voice commands.

Here’s the rub: Cars aren’t as smart. Voice-control failures are new-car owners’ top complaint, according to J.D. Power & Associates, which just gave a failing grade to companies’ attempts to make vehicles talk — and listen.

The industry is working doggedly on answers, because voice recognition is the next automotive battleground. As U.S. auto sales are projected to reach an eight-year high of 16.3 million, carmakers from Ford Motor Co. to Volkswagen AG are racing to work the kinks out.

“You’ve got this highly engineered, wonderfully operating, super comfortable, great-looking car whose voice commands don’t work well,” said Jack Nerad, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “That can spoil the whole experience — to the point of making the car unsalable.”

Almost one-in-four U.S. motorists use voice recognition in their cars daily and 53 percent tap it at least once a week, up from 47 percent two years ago, according to a survey from Strategy Analytics, a research firm. By 2020, 68 million vehicles worldwide will have voice controls, up 84 percent from 37 million in 2014, according to researcher IHS Automotive.

Companies are boosting the sonic quality of microphones and experimenting with their placement; most are now embedded in the ceiling, rearview mirror and driver’s seat. Vocabularies are being expanded beyond the latest systems’ 2 million words, which is up from only 500,000 a few years ago, said Arnd Weil, vice president of Nuance Automotive, a provider of voice systems to major automakers, including Ford, General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC.

The biggest breakthrough may be the adoption of so-called natural speech recognition, common on smartphones and already introduced in GM’s Cadillac model line. Rather than struggling through a robotic and tedious exchange to get the message, these systems comprehend conversational language by recognizing key words and acting on them. “You talk like you would talk to a human,” Weil said. “You say, ‘Navigate to my office,’ and the system figures it out.”

Automakers including Ford and Mercedes-Benz AG are re-engineering systems to make commands easier, so you can utter an address in one shot rather than piecemeal by city, street name and house number. Most are hooking vehicles up to the Internet.

While a talking car like Kitt from 1980s TV show “Knight Rider” may be around the corner, that’s not close enough for people who’ve been audibly bonding with smartphones and tablets for years. Almost one-in-five problems reported in J.D. Power’s 2014 initial quality study of new car ownership were for audio, communication, entertainment and navigation. Of those, 32 percent were for voice recognition systems.

It’s like a relationship gone bad. “Voice recognition is the most humanized feature on the vehicle,” said Kristin Kolodge, J.D. Power’s executive director of driver interaction. “When you’re not being understood, it’s like you’re talking past each other. Emotionally, that doesn’t feel good. Eventually you lose all trust and stop using it.”

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