Foreign Accents Drive Smart Cars’ Voice Technology Crazy

By | September 11, 2014

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, 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.”

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. Voice recognition is a hot topic this week at a conclave on intelligent transportation in Detroit, where Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford will speak.

“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.”

Cloud Cars

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.

E-Mail Dictation

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.

Chrysler, Audi and BMW were among the first to offer e-mail dictation, and Chrysler’s Uconnect can search the Web for a restaurant or gas station. (GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra said yesterday at the Detroit conference that a 2017 Cadillac model will have a new kind of communication system altogether, enabling it to operate on a highway without the driver holding the wheel or touching the pedal.)

‘Knight Rider’

In a few years, a dashboard will initiate conversations, acting like a sort of personal assistant on wheels, Weil said. “It can remind you, ‘Your telephone conference call is starting in a minute. Shall I dial the number now?'”

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.”

Hostile Environment

Jessica Caldwell admits to feelings of bitterness toward her Ford Fusion for comprehending her husband’s “BBC London” British and rejecting her “straightforward American.”

“She has a crush on him and she doesn’t like me,” said Caldwell, an analyst with auto researcher “I tell him, ‘You talk to the system, I’m not talking to her.'”

Caldwell has a healthy relationship with Siri on her iPhone, which she said adds to her Ford frustration. “The expectation is that these things in the car are going to work as seamlessly as your phone. That’s a realistic expectation.”

Maybe, but fulfilling it isn’t that easy, according to automakers. The car is a hostile environment because of the babel crowding the cockpit.

“There are noises coming from the road, coming from other people in the car, coming from the air blower,” said Marios Zenios, vice president of Chrysler’s Uconnect infotainment system. “We have a lot more complexity to deal with.”

‘Get Smarter’

It takes three-to-five years to take a vehicle from drawing board to dealership and just a year or so for a handset. “With a car, I’m always way behind the curve,” said Tom Mutchler, a senior engineer at Consumer Reports magazine who tests voice recognition systems. “Siri is never behind the curve.”

At a conference last month, J.D. Power’s Kolodge summed up the regard for the speech recognition systems this way: “Any way you slice it, that’s a failing grade.”

Zenios said that while there are definitely limitations right now, it’s like any new technology, evolving and getting better with each model year.

“So is the choice to say, ‘We’re not going to offer any voice until it’s perfect?'” the Chrysler executive said. “Well, what year is that going to be?”

Automakers just need to “really step up our game,” said Tim Nixon, chief technical officer of GM’s OnStar connected car unit. “These systems just need to get smarter.”

To be sure, they’ve come a long way since the first versions in luxury models such as Jaguar in the 1990s. In those days, voice-entering a phone number required a laborious conversation that often went awry. (Driver: “2,” Car: “Did you say 2?” Driver: “Yes.” Car: “Enter the next number.”)

Web Connections

Now the goal is to make in-auto voice systems work just like Apple Inc.’s iPhones, the Galaxy from Samsung Electronics Co. and other models.

“With your phone, you’re able to say, ‘Siri, find me the nearest coffee shop’ and it comes back with 12 different options,” Kolodge said. “Consumers want that experience to carry over to the car.”

The capability is just down the road. GM this year is equipping more than 30 models with 4G LTE, while Hyundai Motor Co., Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Toyota Motor Corp. have struck deals with Verizon Communications Inc. to provide wireless service in their cars. Volkswagen’s Audi luxury line and Tesla Motors Inc. have said they’ll offer Web connections in their vehicles.

‘Definitely Tension’

Siri is coming to the dash later this year when Apple rolls out its CarPlay platform, which displays a version of an iPhone applications that can be operated by voice or touch. Honda Motor Co., Mercedes, Fiat SpA’s Ferrari and the Volvo Car Group have said they plan to put it on their cars.

Google Inc.’s Android Auto will also play through a dashboard screen. Google is developing products through the Open Automotive Alliance, a partnership with major automakers including GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, VW and Nissan Motor Co. The partnership is a U-turn from wariness automakers once showed toward giving any dashboard control to tech companies.

“There definitely was tension,” said Ron Montoya, an Edmunds analyst. “But automakers started to realize that consumers are bringing their smartphones into the car anyway, so why not help them out and put it on the screen, which is less distracting than looking at your phone in the cup holder.”

There are still risks, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. It commissioned a study last year that found hands-free phone conversations while driving quadruple the risk of causing a traffic crash and are no less distracting than holding a phone to your ear.

Doesn’t Compute

Using voice-to-text technology to send e-mail is even more dangerous and can cause “inattention blindness,” said Jake Nelson, the organization’s director of traffic safety and research. “You see the pedestrian walk right out in front of your car or you see that red light right in front of you but you don’t really comprehend it or react to it.”

The foundation urges the auto industry to install locks to prevent drivers from checking with social media networks while the vehicle is moving. Some carmakers, such as Chrysler, have engineered their systems with prohibitions. “We can wait to update Facebook until we’re parked,” Nelson said.

In Los Angeles, lawyer Peta-Gay Gordon is still struggling just with the basics in her Infiniti M35, whose navigation system doesn’t compute when she speaks the street name of her home address — Hatteras. So instead, she utters her work address on Ventura Boulevard, which is close to home.

Still, Gordon said she’ll never buy a car again without voice recognition, for all its shortcomings. “I’ve yelled at my voice rec before and muttered, ‘Forget it,’ before it gave up on me,” Gordon said. “Sometimes, you’re just going to have to argue with your car to get things done.”

Topics Auto Tech

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