By on December 7, 2017

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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32 Comments on “Automakers Need to Improve Voice Command Systems ASAP...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I’ve never used an in-car voice recognition system, but I worked for these guys for many years:

    One reason for their 98%+ recognition capability is that it’s a voice-dependent system, requiring you to train the system once for about 30 minutes before you can use it. That training allows the system to respond to your unique voice pattern, inflections, and timing. It is exceptionally fast and reliable, but it has a limited vocabulary. This voice template is then yours to use every day for your job in the warehouse (for example). There is a very high chance that your groceries (and many other products) were delivered to your store using this system.

    Another key to its success is having a microphone placed within an inch of the user’s mouth.

    Producing a voice-independent system that works is a lot harder to do, and microphone placement is more difficult in a car, so I’m not surprised developers of in-car systems are struggling.

    • 0 avatar

      I would think that voice training would be the way to improve auto systems since most cars have only a few drivers, and the most common commands would cover most of the usage. It won’t help with ordering diapers or trying to get show times at the multiplex but it would help with running the infotainment system. Having a highly directional mike that can be adjusted to the driver’s position would help too.

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        +1 everything you said.

        But unfortunately auto mfrs are trying to make their infotainment systems be all things to all people, which means they usually disappoint.

  • avatar

    I never use the Sync 3 in my Mustang. You have to use the right words in the right order for a command to work. If you say “Temperature 72” and the system is listening for “Set temperature to 72” it doesn’t understand what you want. I don’t have the patience or brain memory space to memorize the required phrases from the 200 page Sync 3 manual, I’ll just use the knob or touch screen.

    • 0 avatar

      Same for me, though I’ve figured out most of the byzantine procedures for activating the navigation and making phone calls. As for temperature control, there’s a rocker switch for that.

    • 0 avatar

      Hmm. My older MyFordTouch understands “temperature 72” or even just “72 degrees”. For a system that the automotive media tries so hard to hate, it’s pretty robust. Sluggish, but robust.

  • avatar

    The voice recognition in my base model 2016 Focus ST works great

    I’ve got a 128gig usb stick with about 16000 songs on it and within 5 seconds, I can have any artist, song or album playing.

    Works everytime.

    • 0 avatar

      Pretty close to my setup in my 2011 Fusion SE (no MyFord touchscreen horror, thankfully.) My only beefs are that, since it’s an early incantation, I can’t call up individual songs because there are too many of them on the stick, and no matter how I pronounce it, Sync refuses to understand “Sade.”

      • 0 avatar

        MFT isn’t the “horror” people would have you believe. However, I will say that the basic Sync on our 2017 Escape (4″ screen, without the fancy infotainment) has come a long way. Not much of a need for the fancy system anymore.

  • avatar


    Cars and homes do not need this level of connectivity and we need smarter microphones like we need holes in our heads. Even smartphones and PCs are basically data miners we happily accept in our homes.

    Back off on the invasive connectivity and design simple and tactile user interfaces. That goes as much for car stereos as home thermostats, and if you need to know the weather or how many rods are in a hogshead, take 2 seconds and open a browser.

    Ok, sorry but I really needed to get that off my chest.

  • avatar

    Great reasons intelligent people should NEVER buy or gift Amazon Echos, Dots, or similar devices (TLDR; they listen/record 24/7 to every sound and voice and communication and upload said communications to the forever cloud, which the “owners” can never delete, but there’s even more insidiousness in the offing for those that want to learn more):

  • avatar

    My 2015 Audi was the first car I had that had an actually useful voice recognition system. You did have to train it to recognize your voice, and it did have a limited repertoire of commands it understood, but if you stayed within its comfort range it worked. Now I have a new car, a 2018 BMW, and the voice system is light years better. No memorized commands, you just use natural language and it’s easily better than 95% accurate. Better, in fact, than Siri on my iPhone.

    Also I strongly disagree with those who say this is an unnecessary, intrusive technology. Sure, if all you want to do is drive then the steering wheel, brake pedal and gas pedal are all you need. But if you want to change a GPS destination, find a different radio station or make a phone call then voice commands are much safer than taking your eyes off the road.

    • 0 avatar

      And you’re ok with an unaccountable corporate entity vacuuming up every sound made in the car, and every location it has ever been, and archiving that forever for resale to other corporations, or secretly given to any random govwrnment agent who wants it?

      I find it mind boggling how many people are so eager to invite into their lives 24/7 corporate surveillance.

    • 0 avatar

      “….if all you want to do is drive then the steering wheel, brake pedal and gas pedal are all you need.” You forgot clutch pedal and shifter.. Autonomous gearboxes are no less soul crushing than autonomous the-rest-of-it…

  • avatar

    Great, more equipment I have to remove from my next new car.

  • avatar

    I would prefer Majel Barret’s voice. Nothing else will do.

  • avatar

    Me: (Pushes phone icon on Equinox steering wheel) –
    Equinox: BEEP
    Me: Call home –
    Equinox: Dialing John Lone
    Me: Cancel… I don’t even know a John Lone.
    Equinox: Playing Ozzy Ozborne – I don’t know.
    Me: Cancel!
    Equinox: Dialing 866 469 8759
    Me: Cancel! Call home!
    Equinox: Dialing Homestead Restaurant.
    Me: Cancel! Jesus H Christ…
    Equinox:Dialing Christmas Tree Shops.
    Me: Cancel! Just forget it.
    Equinox: Dialing HOME.

    I HATE this technology with a passion.

  • avatar

    One day, some genius designer will invent knobs you twist and buttons you push to make your car do things you want. If it has a touch screen or talks, I don’t want it. Pretty much leaves me with a new car cut-off date of 2005.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with you Lightspeed, but some screens are pretty unobtrusive, and still have knobs and the like. I only say this as it makes the available new car pool a bit more open.

      As an example, my Mitsubishi has a dead simple audio screen flanked by buttons and knobs. HVAC is completely knob based. I think this was a good compromise.

      • 0 avatar
        Tele Vision

        My CTS-V is like that, too: a big Nav/Audio screen but flanked by buttons. No voice-command. No touch-screen. Lovely. I ignore my personal and work phones the entire time I’m driving it. My 2010 F150 is another story. The Sync 1.0 is wilfully obtuse and, on the highway in a truck with the aerodynamic properties of a house, needs to be shouted at just to get the wrong person on the line. Also, I’m from Just South Of Calgary.

  • avatar

    I’m ok with Android Auto, for the most part it works good except when I say “play new text messages” instead of “read new text messages” and it starts trying to find something in Spotify called “New Text Messages.”

    I draw the line though at trying to use proprietary voice recognition from the auto manufacturers. I sell Subarus and people will ask me how to use the voice commands for the nav and stuff and I’m just like “ehhhh you don’t really want to get busy with that, just type it in.” Most of the time the voice commands are only worthwhile for calling people.

    • 0 avatar

      I primarily use them for calling people, setting the radio station, working Pandora, or selecting music from the SD card. In the case of selecting music, I consider it a huge safety advantage. Easy to do with voice recognition. Very attention intensive if you go through the screens.

      It’ll do a lot more, but those other things are best left to buttons and knobs. Why would I press a button to tell the car to increase the volume, when I can just press a button (on the steering wheel)?

  • avatar

    The premise that a voice recognition system is somehow safer than a touch screen is questionable, to say the least. I’ve seen people yapping on their phone drive straight into a guardrail, and I doubt my experience is unique. The bottom line is that humans are terrible at “multi-tasking” – actually they don’t really multitask, they just switch from one task to another repeatedly.

    When you’re driving, you’re driving. Make your travel plans, restaurant reservations, etc. before the car is in motion.

  • avatar

    Meh. At one point I thought I would like VR software, and have even found a vehicle where it works pretty well. However, I’ve been burned in the screaming match with Mrs. Sync and Mrs. UConnect so I don’t bother.

    As much as the Mazda Connect system gets lambasted for being “the Worst” I like the system in my Mazda6. The temperature controls are wholly separate from the infotainment (I really hate that portmanteau) system and the mouse really does work well. There’s a button for each primary menu – Audio, Home and Nav – which will quickly get you where you need to be and there are very obvious detents allowing you to know how many items you’ve scrolled past. The only things I toggle regularly are so ingrained in muscle memory it would take longer to remember the VR. The fact that the touchscreen is only active while stationary matters not one wit as fingerprints are a peeve anyway.

  • avatar

    Until 2016, Honda voice-control was utterly useless! Can’t call up the trip computer without turning the heat up full-blast, and enough of the interface is nannied shut when the VSS detects a hint of speed that full-on, disc-warping, ABS-chattering stops are necessary out of sheer frustration, if nothing else, to select from a SINGLE ITEM on a screen! Use the voice-commands to move to the next page of a menu??!! Fuhgettaboutit! I’ve had the car in my avatar 4.5 years, and still haven’t figured how!

    On my next car, I’ll have an aftermarket device installed that will interrupt the VSS signal to the infotainment unit when a hidden switch is flipped!

    Perhaps the Garmin-based Nav units in the latest Hondas are better — don’t know from firsthand experience.

  • avatar

    In my opinion voice recognition systems (IVR) in vehicles has been abysmal in every vehicle I have seen it in. I feel that the reason for this is that manufactures only see it as a marketing tool rather than a safety feature and as such refuse to make the investment into it that would make it a useful accessory. Unavailable technology is simply not the reason nor is it an exorbitant cost that would be needed to include it as a working vehicle accessory. Instead I believe that to implement it properly would make a slight dent in the manufactures profitability. I base this on the following personal experience:

    Around 8 years I purchased a Garmin nevi 3597LM portable, stand alone, GPS unit for around $400 retail, that resides in a package that is around the size of an typical cell phone. This unit has IVR functionality that was dependable, user friendly, and extremely useful WITHOUT training. In 2015 I purchased a Lexus RX350 with just about every technological related accessory available for it, including IVR, which was forced upon me in order to obtain blind spot detection. To date, in my opinion the IVR system has never functioned reliably or properly to make it useable. My 8 year old Garmin runs circles around it. It’s recognition is so poor that I had to quit trying to use it as it was too frustrating and distracting to use it safely while driving. I would be most happy to use my Garmin in place of it, except for the fact their is no place in the vehicle to permanently secure the mount that would be reachable in normal driving (has a touchscreen) an not block many of the other vehicle features, such as the sound system and ventilation display. I should also mention that it came with regular free navigation updates, and traffic information for life for which my annual bill for this can be over $400 year and requires me to take it to a dealer for updates, which take upwards of ½ a day. The only way presently I can mount the Garmin in the car is by a temporary friction mount which would make the Garmin a flying object in case of a collision. So therefore I choose not to use it in this vehicle. The price I paid Lexus for a totally inferior product was in the thousands. However the price substantially dropped in the following years model. I recently had the opportunity to drive a 2017 Lexus NX with IVR as a loaner car while mine was being serviced. It was only marginally better than my 2015 Lexus. Normally I keep a vehicle for 10 years or longer and do not lease. However after being totally frustrated with this vehicle, I plan to look into replacing with another vehicle that offers more functional and useful IVR or will allow me to exclude it without compromising safety equipment so I can go back to using my 10 year old Garmin or buy a new Garmin with even better technology – if I can find one! One manufacturer I will not be considering is Toyota, the parent of Lexus and continues to claim its IVR in my current vehicle is working to spec.

    This entire experience leaves me with the impression that major vehicle manufactures are choose NOT to make IVR systems a user friendly option in order to increase profits, since drivers have to buy them in order to get desirable technology and safety features. It seems to me that vehicle manufacturers are attempting implement ‘Star Trek’ technology in their vehicles without making the investment needed to insure it works properly.

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