In-Car Speech Systems Hit Roadblocks

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Although speech recognition systems in cars have intrigued consumers since Ford first marketed its Sync system in 2007, findings from a number of recent user surveys and research studies could potentially put the brakes on the technology.

The first blow came from the Automobile Association of America (AAA), which conducted tests that found dangerous distractions still exist when drivers use speech recognition behind the wheel to receive, send, or reply to email, text messages, or social media posts.

AAA in mid-June released its findings, which it said pointed to few safety benefits even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. The research found that as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, and drivers scan the road less.

"There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies," said AAA president and CEO Robert Darbelnet, in a statement. "It's time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free."

Nuance Communications, a provider of in-vehicle speech solutions, acknowledged that there are issues but said it was not a reason to keep from going forward with new innovations. "We agree that driving distractions need to be minimized...and we continue to invest substantial resources toward this goal," the company said in a statement. "From maps and music to phones and messaging, it is critical that the industry collaborate to find a safer, smarter way."

Deborah Dahl, principal at Conversational Technologies, is calling for a different way of interpreting driver distraction.

"The question is being framed as 'Is it safe to use speech in cars?' but I think that's the wrong way to look at it. The answer depends on what the driver is trying to accomplish," she says. "A cognitively distracting task like texting or reading email should not be done while driving, either with speech or manually. Simpler tasks, like tuning the radio or adjusting the temperature, are much less likely to make heavy demands on attention or thinking."

Dahl urges speech companies to sponsor studies that compare speech versus nonspeech for the same tasks. "In some cases, I believe they'll find a net gain in safety with speech, but they may also find that there are some things that are just too distracting to be done while driving, with or without speech."

Bill Scholz, president of NewSpeech and head of the Applied Voice Input/Output Society (AVIOS), agrees that the AAA study raises important points that should lead to further research.

"I am indeed concerned with the future role of speech recognition in cars, as new research appears to support the conclusion that in-car speech recognition is more distracting than cell phone use," Scholz stated in an email to Speech Technology. "What we need is a carefully done study comparing the degree of distraction generated by simple hands-busy, eyes-busy substitute speech [e.g., lights off, radio on, lock door], as opposed to more complex speech [How far am I from my next turn? How many miles am I from home?]. My prediction is that simple commands do not impose serious driver distraction, whereas more sophisticated speech queries could lead to distraction."

While the industry sorts out the dangers of speech recognition in cars, drivers themselves are finding fault with how the systems operate. A J.D. Power & Associates survey of more than 83,000 drivers who purchased new 2013 cars, released just after the AAA announced its findings, found many consumers are frustrated by the voice recognition systems.

Among the problems cited were recognition issues, especially with accents and background or ambient noise.

In another J.D. Power & Associates study about emerging technology, people said they want speech recognition in their cars but are not willing to pay extra for it.

"We've gotten an incredibly strong response that consumers want this, but when we asked people if they would pay for the feature and we gave them different price points, the interest drops considerably," Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of global automotive research at J.D. Power & Associates, says.

"There's a demand [for] it. But there's not a belief voice activation is effective, so they're not going to pay for it," he says.

He believes that whoever solves the usability problems first will have an opportunity to attract customers to their brand. He and others argue that as the technology improves, customer satisfaction will translate into loyalty.

"Speech technology in cars is better than [ever]. The integrations need...work, but that's no reason to condemn the whole movement toward speech enablement," says Dan Miller, senior analyst at Opus Research. "Drivers hold quality to very high standards, and solution providers have some work to do. That's not a bad thing. It's a signal that consumers care [about speech recognition]."

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