Automakers Need to Improve Voice Command Systems ASAP

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

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]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Sgeffe Sgeffe on Dec 11, 2017

    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.

  • GymW GymW on Dec 17, 2017

    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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