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Cars That Think but Won’t Talk

The failings of voice recognition systems enter the smart car conversation

2 min read

Cars That Think but Won’t Talk
Illustration: Getty Images

As automakers cram more intelligence into the vehicles that roll off their assembly lines, they’re touting the cars’ ability to converse with drivers. High-end models are designed to take voice commands and deliver information so that drivers rarely have to take their eyes off the road or their hands off the wheel. But as more and more consumers expect this feature, anecdotal evidence is mounting that shows today’s speech recognition systems are not up to the task.

An Insurance Journal article notes that nearly one-fourth of U.S. drivers use their cars’ speech recognition systems daily and 53 percent rely on these systems at least once a week. According to market research firm IHS Automotive, 68 million vehicles worldwide will have voice controls by 2020. That’s an 84-percent increase from the 37 million vehicles so equipped in 2014.

“Here’s the rub,” says the Insurance Journal article. Cars aren’t as capable of obeying voice commands as smartphones, whose ease of use has set a high bar. "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 article points to the frustration that one couple, owners of a new, US $95,000 Mercedes GL500, experiences when they attempt to give the car directions. The fact that they both have British accents has made it exceedingly difficult to make hands-free calls or enter addresses into the navigation system. The article uses their travails to illustrate the lengths to which people go in order to try to make the best of a bad situation:  

“The car just doesn’t understand,” said Colin Britton, a software executive in Lexington, Massachusetts, 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.”

The video below shows just how maddening some of these conversations can be.

But automakers are aware that most consumers don’t find it the least bit amusing, and that the companies' bottom lines will be increasingly affected as more drivers arrive at dealer showrooms expecting their cars to seamlessly parse instructions and take dictation.To that end, Arnd Weil, vice president of Nuance Automotive, a provider of voice systems to carmakers including Ford, GM, and Chrysler, told the Insurance Journal, “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.”

Kristin Kolodge, J.D. Power’s executive director of driver interaction, likens a finicky speech recognition system to a relationship gone bad. “Voice recognition is the most humanized feature on the vehicle,” she told the Insurance Journal. “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.”

Jack Nerad, a senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book who was quoted in the article, concurs, noting that voice commands that don’t work well “can spoil the whole experience—to the point of making the car unsalable.”

I wonder whether we’ll someday see human-vehicle relationship counselors or self-proclaimed “car whisperers.”

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