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Market Spotlight on Automotive: IVAs Are Popular in New Cars, but Concerns, Limits Remain

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Are you old enough to remember Knight Rider? The hit TV show from the 1980s featured David Hasselhoff as a crime fighter whose only partner was an artificially intelligent supercar named Kit. As a kid I was, frankly, obsessed. I wanted my own Kit. While cars aren’t exactly fighting crime yet, they are becoming smarter and smarter, and speech technologies are at the heart of this transformation

Intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs) are changing the way we do a lot of things, in and out of the car. We ask Siri to set alarms. Tell Alexa to give us reminders. Ask Google to play our favorite song. In fact, in January 2019, a research report from Global Market Insights found that the global IVA market is set to grow from its current market value of more than $1 billion to over $11.5 billion by 2024. One of the big factors behind that growth is the automotive industry.

According to the report, the IVA market in automotive applications is expected to grow rapidly over the forecast time span. IVAs have the power to provide personalized assistance to drivers and can be integrated with automatic parking systems, adaptive cruise control, lane change assist, and other ADAS controls. And of course the infotainment systems in today’s connected cars are ripe to be transformed by speech-enabled tools.

In fact, speech recognition systems are already a popular feature in new cars. But they aren’t quite standard yet. As Market Watch reports, “A total of 55 percent of all new motor vehicles produced in 2019 will incorporate voice recognition, up from 37 percent in 2012. The increase in voice-recognition units in vehicles will drive revenue to $170 million in 2019, more than double from $81 million in 2011.”

For now, though, there are still workarounds. Juan E. Gilbert, Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Professor and chair of the computer science department at the University of Florida, says, “Most of [the new cars] will have this, but there are still some holdouts. However, you can connect your phone to your vehicle’s infotainment system and use speech that way as an option.”

Tom Schalk, vice president of voice technology at SiriusXM, says, “Most of today’s car models support Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto, both of which provide best-in-class infotainment systems that are powered by the driver’s phone. Siri and Google Assistant, along with navigation, voice dialing, voice texting, and media management, are all speech-enabled via the cloud. Embedded speech technology is built into all new cars and does not leverage the cloud.”

J.D. Power and Amazon’s Alexa Auto teamed up for an online survey in July 2018. They found 59% of consumers are more likely to purchase a car from auto brands that support their preferred voice assistant used in the home. Additionally, according to the survey, 76% of U.S. consumers are interested in seeing their smart speaker voice assistant accessible from inside their next car.

This makes sense. If you’re driving in your car at 8:30 a.m. and ask your voice assistant to remind you to perform a task before you go to bed, you need to know your assistants are talking to each other so you get the reminder when you’re actually getting ready for bed.

It’s clear that consumer expectations are changing. But is the reality of speech technology in the car keeping up?

Safety First

Many of the now (almost) standard speech technologies in cars were born out of safety concerns. As cell phones took over and moved into every facet of our lives—including the car—distracted driving became an issue, and speech recognition came to the rescue. Thanks to voice controls, drivers no longer have to look at their phones to read or send a text, get directions, or do any of the other distracting things they are, let’s face it, still going to do regardless of distracted-driving laws.

Gilbert says, “People use speech mostly to make and receive calls in vehicles. Drivers are also using it for directions, sending messages, playing music, and getting information from their phone or the web.”

“The most common uses of embedded speech in the car include voice dialing, address entry, and media management,” Schalk adds. “For CarPlay and Android Auto, speech input is commonly used for destination entry—addresses, business names, categories, and more. Voice dialing and voice texting are common uses, as well as enhanced media management. Spoken requests for information are handled by Apple’s or Google’s personal assistant, depending on the driver’s type of phone.”

For some, it’s hard to imagine that all this technology in the car doesn’t amount to its own kind of distraction, but Gilbert argues that speech recognition is part of the solution: “The primary goal of the driver is driving. Speech is a secondary task, at best. Therefore, driver distraction is a major issue for all drivers. Speech is a way to reduce driver distraction. Some studies suggest otherwise, but there are ways to design high-quality speech interfaces that can limit distraction.”

In fact, studies have been done on this topic. Research from AAA suggests that IVAs in the car might not be the cure-all some might have hoped for. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found “potentially unsafe mental distractions can persist for as long as 27 seconds after dialing, changing music, or sending a text using voice commands.” That means, even if all you’re doing is asking your car to send a text or find you directions, you still might be taking your mind off the road. The study also found that even the least distracting systems distracted drivers enough that they remained impaired for more than 15 seconds after completing a task.

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