Automakers Need to Improve Voice Command Systems ASAP

Amazon’s Echo has already invaded homes across North America, but it’s now beginning to creep into vehicle infotainment systems. My parents have one and both are quite fond of its ability to answer basic queries through intuitive voice commands. Though my mother refers to the system as my father’s “new wife,” it prefers to be addressed as Alexa when being issued instructions. If you need another point of reference, it’s reminiscent of Apple’s Siri, the computer from Star Trek, and any other automated technology using a female voice as the primary interface.

However, as handy as these systems are, they sometimes make mistakes. Alexa is great at giving me the weather but, when you give her more complex requests, she’ll sometimes get confused. That’s not a big problem when you are able to whip out your phone and go online, but it can be real annoying when driving. Early voice command interfaces in automobiles were infuriating — it was often easier to give up and input whatever information you were trying to shout at Ford Sync, BMW iDrive, or whatever decade-old system you happened to be using.

Thankfully, voice recognition is far better now than it was in 2008. But with so many concerns about automotive safety cropping up, it’s a little surprising that nobody has yet perfected an interface that effectively allows motorists to keep their hands where they belong — on the wheel. 

The Los Angeles Times brought the topic up late last month and speculated that, if an automaker could create a comprehensive verbal interface using proprietary tech, it would have a major leg up on the competition. Consider how often Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are mentioned as major selling points. If an OEM had its own system, it could funnel additional revenue streams from it as people stopped bothering to sync up their phones.

It’s not that automakers aren’t interested, either; they clearly are. General Motors announced its own digital marketplace this week and, while our criticisms dealt mainly with commercial shenanigans, others faulted it for not being safe enough. Had GM managed to roll this product out with intuitive voice commands, the odds of it taking fire from the National Safety Council would have been slim to nil.

Unfortunately, vehicle manufacturers are more likely to tap suppliers for this kind of product. In-car technology is beginning to become so elaborate that a single automaker would be hard pressed to do all of the work itself.

Garmin, the navigation system company, develops infotainment systems for automakers and is about to release one that uses Alexa to communicate directly with a head unit. “That goes far beyond what’s out there now,” said Garmin product manager Kip Dondlinger.

Meanwhile, items designed by automakers still provide a lackluster showing. Mike Ramsey, connected-car expert at market research firm Gartner, explained that most present-day units from automakers “work off a hard drive, not the cloud; they have limited dictionaries, they have limited commands, which is why your experience totally sucks.” However, he thinks tech companies will make strides over the next few months and believes automakers will be extremely interested in how things develop.

It’s interesting that this technology hasn’t been given more of a priority. Unlike autonomous technology, which still needs time to mature, voice command systems could help save lives today. Let’s face it, touch screens require far more attention than old-fashioned radios and HVAC knobs. Last year, distracted driving was linked to 3,500 highway deaths in the United States, and you’d better believe more than a handful of those individuals were attempting to navigate the touchscreen of their center console.

We’re not exactly thrilled that so many automakers are gearing up to make automobiles permanently connected to the internet. But, if that’s the road we’re on, maybe companies can use it to sync voice command systems to the network — making the feature more enjoyable and far safer.

[Image: Ford Motor Company]

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