Voice recognition and other high-tech features are more mainstream nowadays, meaning the race is on for automaker looking to majorly cash-in.
DEARBORN, Mich.—Don’t expect to converse with your car quite like David Hasselhoff and KITT did in the ’80s TV classic “Knight Rider,” but voice recognition is one of the big looming trends in the automobile industry.
Some drivers who seek out the latest and greatest in technology have been talking to their cars when they want to listen to music, turn up the air conditioner or get directions.
Voice recognition and other high-tech features are expected to become far more mainstream in the months and years ahead, as automakers race to outdo each other and tap into consumer demand for an app-inspired, always-connected lifestyle on the road.
CD players have been replaced by hard drives that can store tens of thousands of MP3s, or drivers can connect a smartphone and use its data connection to stream music via the Internet. Dedicated GPS navigation systems are being phased out in favour of multi-function digital panels that look like a smartphone or tablet homescreen, populated with a long list of apps.
“Automakers are trying to replicate that smartphone/touchscreen experience that people are used to and like,”"says industry analyst and consultant Doug Newcomb. “Car buyers really want this, that’s why automakers are doing it, technology really helps them sell cars.”
Perhaps there was no clearer sign that companies are serious about competing to develop the coolest, most advanced in-car technology than an Apple announcement in June. The tech giant revealed it’s working with nine automakers to integrate its popular voice-recognition tool Siri into vehicles.
Meanwhile, BMW and Honda are among the car manufacturers that are releasing new in-car technology in Canada this fall.
And at the forefront of the trend has been Ford, one of the more aggressive companies in delivering in-car voice technology to the mass market with its Sync product, which has already been around for about five years.
With Sync, drivers can press a button on the steering wheel and voice their desire to place a phone call, control the stereo, make their vehicle warmer or cooler, or get directions. Ford claims the system recognizes 10,000 different commands—although there’s no master list available to consumers so that’s difficult to verify.
“Our world is changing,” Bill Ford, Ford’s chairman, said at a recent press event in Dearborn, Mich.
“We’ve got over four million vehicles with Sync on the road today and what’s cool is we have an open platform, so developers are developing apps for Sync. And we love that, that’s why we did it.”
Among those apps available for Sync in the US are the audio streaming services Pandora, MOG and Slacker Radio, a program to listen to tweets posted to Twitter, and another that gives allergy sufferers an update on pollen levels in the local area.
Critics, however, have noted that Sync’s ability to understand strings of spoken words is nowhere near as robust as Siri’s. Drivers must learn how to speak to the Sync system, which often doesn’t respond to natural speech and instead needs to hear a sequence of spoken commands to complete a task. If your wording is a little off, you’ll be prompted to try again. And don’t even think of asking jokey questions like you can with Siri.
“It’s getting better but it’s still not there, it’s still all over the map,” says Newcomb. ”They’re still in that learning phase, a growing pains phase.”