Coming From Automakers: Voice Control That Understands You Better

EVERY once in a while, just for laughs, Kevin Smith-Fagan tries to call a friend of his, Priscilla, using the voice-recognition system in his 2013 Chevrolet Volt.

“I’ve tried it so many times and it never gets it right,” said Mr. Smith-Fagan, an executive at a public television station in Sacramento. “It always thinks I’m saying ‘Chris,’ and I have like five people named Chris in my phone book, so it’s always interesting to see who’s getting the call.”

Voice control systems have been in cars for more than a decade, and great strides have been made in the technology’s ability to understand human speech. But many people still find these systems too unreliable, or annoying, to use for more than the most simple tasks, like “Call Mom.”

That isn’t stopping auto and tech companies from trying to give drivers the ability to do even more things by talking to their cars — while keeping their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. The efforts have some added urgency now, as states pass stricter laws aimed at curbing distracted driving. Under a California law that went into effect Jan. 1, holding or operating a phone while driving is now prohibited.

This week at the International CES, the giant electronics conference in Las Vegas, Ford Motor announced that owners of its cars would soon be able to use Amazon’s Alexa voice-activated assistant in their vehicles. Drivers will be able to ask for a weather report, stream music from Amazon Music or add appointments to their calendars. They will also be able to use Alexa from home to start or unlock their cars remotely.

But the automaker also envisions drivers using Alexa to help with other tasks — like shopping on Amazon. Stuck in traffic? You can take care of Valentine’s Day by saying, “Alexa, order flowers on Amazon.”

Other companies are moving in the same direction. Apple’s Siri can be used to control iPhone functions in cars, and Apple’s CarPlay software allows drivers to dictate text messages while driving, as well as program destinations into Apple Maps and have the route plotted on the car’s display. Google’s Android Auto can do the same.

In the last year, carmakers like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors have also introduced improved voice-recognition systems that can understand normal spoken words for many tasks. Older systems required drivers to learn specific commands.

With newer models, owners can program in a destination just by saying the address, as if speaking to another person. In older cars, the state, city and street had to be given separately, one at a time — and if you were lucky, each was correctly understood.

While more advanced systems like Alexa will make it easier for drivers to use voice commands, there are still hurdles. The biggest is just changing habits, and persuading people to try talking to their cars.

On the day before Thanksgiving, Frank Krieber bought a 2016 Dodge Challenger, granite gray, with a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 engine, and the latest version of the Uconnect infotainment system. A few days later, when he set off on a road trip to Florida from his home in Michigan, he synced his phone to the car, but didn’t bother to use the voice-recognition capabilities to enter destinations or handle other tasks.


A Ford presentation at CES in Las Vegas. Credit Sam VarnHagen

“I probably should use it, but it’s just easier to put in an address manually, so I haven’t really played around with it,” said Mr. Krieber, a sales executive for a computer company. “My experience so far has been, when you tell it to do something, it doesn’t do what you want.”

Older cars used voice-recognition systems that were built into the car and had limited computing power and memory. Now that more and more cars have wireless connections, the voice-recognition processing can be done via the internet in distant computers and servers, what the tech industry calls the cloud.

That is an advantage that Ford sees in using Alexa, said Don Butler, Ford’s executive director for connected vehicle and services. “If you have the voice recognition done outside the car, people will see a much greater ability to interpret normal, everyday speech,” he said.

With Alexa, a user will need to download an Alexa app to a phone and carry the phone in the car, creating the connection with the cloud.

Ford and Amazon have also developed a way to get Alexa to work seamlessly with a Ford car’s own built-in entertainment and navigation systems. Alexa will first be available in a few months in battery-powered and hybrid models like the Focus Electric and Fusion Energi, and later in other Ford models.

“You can ask Alexa where the nearest Starbucks is, and have her program the address into the Ford navigation system for you,” Mr. Butler said.

For Amazon, the collaboration with Ford is another illustration of a broader push by technology giants to push their versions of voice assistants, which are made to perform simple tasks like turning on lights at home, playing music and fetching sports scores from the internet.

Apple was an early entrant into the market with its Siri assistant for iPhones. Google has its Assistant and a new connected speaker featuring the voice technology called Google Home. And Samsung, which has announced plans to buy the audio and automobile technology company Harman International Industries, last year agreed to acquire a voice assistant start-up, Viv Labs.

Many analysts believe Amazon has vaulted to a leadership position in the race with the surprise success of the Echo family of smart speakers. While Amazon does not reveal sales figures for its devices, the company recently said that the Echo speaker and a smaller device called Echo Dot were the best-selling products on Amazon last year.

Amazon has been more aggressive than other tech giants in getting other companies like Ford to integrate Alexa into their products. Dozens of other companies were expected to announce plans at CES to allow people to control their devices using Alexa.

The satellite television provider Dish Network said people who use its Hopper digital video recorders would be able to use Alexa voice commands to change channels and play movies. Lenovo, the computer maker, announced its own Alexa-based speaker, Lenovo Smart Assistant. The maker of Seiki, Westinghouse Electronics and Element Electronics televisions said it would build Alexa into the remote controls for some 4K sets from those brands.

In California, Mr. Smith-Fagan would welcome better voice recognition. “With the new law we have, I’m kind of worried, because everyone’s going to have to find a way to use the phone without touching it with your hands,” he said.

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