Speech and the Automobile

No matter where you get your car and driver news, you've probably seen the recent flurry of headlines reporting new implementations of voice recognition technology in cars - and not just in high-end cars, but in midrange autos such as Honda. As little as ten years ago, something like voice recognition technology in the automobile sounded positively space age to most, but today, voice and wireless technology are becoming more and more commonplace in the ultimate mobile device—the car. But will these on-board communications capabilities change the way we drive, the way we interact with our cars? At first, voice recognition seemed to be the catch-all solution to the demand for safer, more reliable ways to help drivers keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel while enjoying the conveniences of modern technology. Yet the relatively slow uptake of some initiatives has caused consumers to wonder whether this is truly what we want from our cars. Are we ready for such a dynamic solution? According to Forrester Research, there's no doubt that voice recognition is the future, but Forrester also predicts that even when the technology is ready, we're never going to let go of some of the tactile techniques with which we're so familiar. In fact, some users will always prefer them. But perhaps in the car, where safety must be our priority at all times, voice-activated controls for things such as mobile phones, dashboard controls and GPS navigation systems will prompt us to change the way we think and use our voices above all other means of interaction. With voice recognition technology, we can utilize these systems - safely - as we drive. And the McKinsey Quarterly report says yes, we are ready for this dynamic solution, predicting that by 2010, total annual U.S. telematics revenues could reach $40 billion and estimating industry growth at 2 to 2.5 percent yearly. Indeed, after years of expectation, voice recognition is fulfilling its promise. Faster chip speeds and more sophisticated algorithms mean voice recognition is performing better than ever before. New speech-enabled applications are hitting the market as businesses and consumers realize that voice is the most natural way to access information as they drive. Perhaps the slow start we've seen so far can be attributed to a too-narrow view of speech technology as merely a cool gadget in a high-end car. Today, as more technology is embedded into vehicles, telematics is evolving to encompass more than voice technology; it now spans wireless data services, remote monitoring and diagnostic capabilities. This is important because it expands the scope of telematics and has the potential to benefit sectors tied closely to the auto industry—sectors such as insurance and petroleum. Finally, the auto industry is beginning to apply one of the fundamental principles of retail - that consumer offerings must be tailored to consumer needs - to the enhancements being made to on-board car technology. A recent study by Driscoll-Wolfe shows that safety (such as hands-free phone service and emergency road assistance) are the primary reasons for consumers to request telematics devices in vehicles. And today, voice-enabled applications offering hands- and eyes-free interaction for drivers are making their way into cars. For example, Michigan-based automotive supplier Johnson Controls uses IBM voice recognition technology to implement this type of mobile communications system for DaimlerChrysler. UConnect, a Bluetooth-based communication system, will be offered in the 2003 model year, and is focused on hands-free telephoning. UConnect allows an ordinary hand-held cellphone, laid down casually on the seat, to work with systems in the car. The driver dials the phone with voice commands and carries on a conversation by talking into a receiver installed in the car. The answering voice comes through the car's built-in speaker system. UConnect also stores up to 32 numbers in an address book, transferring a call from a built-in car phone to a mobile phone, working with multiple phones. Diagnostics checks are also a key facet of the safety that telematics devices offer. An example of this is cars that combine in-vehicle diagnostics with interactive voice recognition technology to alert drivers to problems, such as an overheating or malfunctioning engine. If a car becomes disabled, the off-board computing software will automatically call for roadside assistance, notify the driver and download a complete diagnostic "health check" report into the computer system of a nearby service station. When the car is brought in, the station already knows exactly what needs to be fixed, eliminating guesswork for both driver and repair crew. Cars incorporating these systems will be available in less than a year. More recently, car buyers have started asking for telematics applications such as route guidance, personal interest information and yellow pages assistance. To address this growing customer demand, Honda announced in July of this year that it will provide a voice-activated navigation system in select new 2003 model Accords. This enhanced voice recognition technology enables drivers to ask for directions to points of interest and hear responses over the existing car audio system, allowing them to easily and efficiently reach their destinations without having to look at maps or stop and ask for directions. Voice recognition technology is clearly a fundamental component of the successful delivery of a much larger, full-featured, set of telematics services. But this requires a complex network of different industry players working together to create value for users while sharing the time and costs required to accelerate industry growth. In turn, this also requires cooperation among a diverse group that includes telematics service providers (TSPs), tier-one suppliers, wireless carriers, content providers and, of course, technology providers and auto manufacturers. Clearly, the need to integrate various software and hardware from many disparate sources demands agreed-upon and open standards. These issues are being addressed through the formation of groups such as the Telematics Suppliers Consortium and the Automotive Multimedia Interface Collaboration. More importantly, the concept of open systems architecture and standards, critical to the development of telematics applications and services, is gaining traction within these groups. Open Internet technologies such as XML, VoiceXML, SOAP, OSGi and UDDI allow TSPs to provide dynamic content to the customer on demand, forming a middleware infrastructure that will greatly reduce the integration costs of a TSP. Instead of developing unique integration efforts for each content provider, the TSP and its content-providing partners can communicate using published service interfaces based on open messaging formats. The key to success for speech technology as a part of the greater telematics industry ultimately lies in the user's perception of value gained versus the attached price tag. In essence, users must feel the need for the technology and see the benefits and usefulness of purchasing such embedded, voice-enabled devices in a car. As 2.5 and third-generation WLAN and Bluetooth technologies are deployed around the world, we will see a growing demand for this type of offering as the new generations of technologies will better integrate data and voice, making users feel more at ease with in-car systems. On an even more positive note, the formation of standards bodies and groups will accelerate development and increase customer choices and applications based on the advanced technologies needed to attract consumer demand. Clearly, voice recognition technology in the automobile holds potential far greater than serving as a cool gadget at the high end. Linking real-time driver and vehicle information to relevant industries and agencies mean better, faster diagnostics, increased safety and better bottom lines, and the automotive industry, as well as related industries, are starting to realize that. For now, drivers are reaping the benefits of a nascent industry. They're getting vital real-time information and navigational aids. Other top priorities include safety and reliability. Implementing the right set of services to accommodate these needs now will drive the ongoing and future success of voice recognition technology in the telematics industry. Patty McHugh is the director of PvC Telematics for IBM Pervasive Computing.
SpeechTek Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues