Tour San Diego in a talking carSiri is a virtual assistant that comes with the iPhone 4S. Siri speaks to you in regular conversational language and recognizes whatever you say to it. And a sophisticated Siri-type of voice-recognition system is coming to some new cars in about a year, according to news reports.

As Brent Snavely, writing in Detroit Free Press, puts it: “Soon, cars will be able to make your dinner reservations easily.” Although smartphones are already able to provide this type of service, so far cars have not been equipped to do so “without a clunky, multistep conversation,” said Ed Chrumka, senior product manager for the connected car for Nuance (a developer of voice technology) last Monday at the Nuance Automotive Forum in Detroit. Chrumka said service providers and car makers are working on improving cars’ ability to comprehend natural-language commands.

Liane Yvkoff reports for CNET:

Nuance’s speech recognition is already used in several infotainment systems, such as Ford’s Sync and GM’s IntelliLink. It’s also the brains behind Siri’s genielike capabilities. But most OEM systems support only 50 or 60 terse voice commands to facilitate hands-free navigation or calling. Ford is the exception, its Sync system recognizing 10,000 voice commands.

However, it’s getting to the point that even 10,000 voice commands isn’t enough, especially when you want the system to be able to look up directions, suggest restaurants, or shop for you. Existing navigation systems expect you to know and manually enter the address of your destination, which is beginning to feel antiquated. For vehicles that allow voice input for directions, the menus are long, laborious, and often just as distracting to navigate as using a touch screen. Siri-like voice systems in vehicles are desperately needed for automakers to keep up with consumer expectations.

Snavely quotes Brigitte Richardson, Ford’s lead engineer on global voice-control technology as saying most customers will soon expect all news cars to be able to handle voice commands.

Despite a consumer demand for such services, especially among the younger generations that have grown up with a lot of technology, there are safety concerns. The U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who led distracted driving summits in 2009 and 2010, has urged automakers to put safety first when they work towards adding more infotainment systems in new vehicles.

Snavely points out that Consumer Reports said last month that Ford’s MyFord Touch infotainment system is difficult to use while driving. Ford announced last Monday that it will offer an upgraded version of the system in early 2012, and that current owners can upgrade the software for free.

Snavely writes:

Ford also stressed that many of the features on its touch-screen system can also be operated by a toggle switch on the steering wheel and with voice commands.

‘Our customers overall are telling us that they want more, and that this is not a distraction for them,’ Richardson said. ‘They overwhelmingly want more control over their vehicle.’

To get an idea of how advanced voice recognition systems will work in vehicles, you can see how Siri works in the iPhone 4S in a short video on the following page:

Image by tristanf (Tristan Ferne), used under its Creative Commons license.


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