The Voice Controls Coming to Your Car’s Driver’s Seat

From a Wall Street Journal story by Mike Colias headlined “The New Voice Control’s Coming to Your Driver’s Seat”:

You approach the car with arms full of groceries and call out, “Open the tailgate!” On the road, as snow builds, the vehicle asks if you’d like to engage four-wheel drive, which you do by saying “yes.” Wondering what that digital warning symbol is on your dashboard? The car can explain as you drive.

The technology behind these scenarios is expected to make its way into cars in the next year or two, as auto makers expand voice capabilities and allow users to control more of the car through spoken word. With the proliferation of screens in cars, car makers are offering verbal commands as a way to help the driver keep eyes on the road and avoid visual distractions. They are moving toward voice commands that go deeper into the car’s controls—verbal cues for turning on the wipers, adjusting the mirrors or popping the tailgate.

At the same time, auto makers are programming the car to interject with more suggestions of its own. They are combining voice with artificial intelligence in an effort to transform the car into a travel companion of sorts—one that will suggest a restaurant, alert you to pending problems or even detect your tense mood and adjust by playing classical music.

“Voice assistants are becoming much more proactive,” said Prateek Kathpal, chief technology officer at Cerence Inc., a Massachusetts-based company that provides artificial intelligence and other technology to car makers.

Car buyers would be forgiven some skepticism. As recently as a decade ago, voice-recognition systems were a source of frustration. Commands required a specific sequence of often stilted words. Commands weren’t standardized, so what worked in, say, the family Ford didn’t work in the Lexus. The systems were so unreliable they dragged down auto makers’ scores in vehicle-quality rankings.

“Car companies invested tons of money to license [voice] technology, integrate it, put a button on the steering wheel—and it was a complete letdown,” says Ned Curic, chief technology officer for Jeep maker Stellantis N.V. and previously vice president of Amazon.com’s Alexa Automotive division. “It was like a trust-buster on a scale unimaginable.”

These days, drivers are using voice controls more frequently. Forty percent of owners used their in-vehicle voice systems at least once a week, up from 30% in 2019, according to a U.S. survey conducted last year by research firm Strategy Analytics. A survey earlier this year from research firm S&P Global Mobility found that voice was the first or second choice of vehicle owners for using navigation, making phone calls or changing the music, compared with other options like dashboard buttons, steering-wheel controls or the touchscreen.

With advances in AI, the systems have become more able to follow conversational commands and questions. That robot lurking behind that multimedia touchscreen is better at understanding your request to switch the radio station and is less likely to call your boss when you meant to call your spouse. And, because most cars now come with internet connections, they can draw from the cloud to keep up-to-date navigation maps and local business listings.

The introduction nearly a decade ago of features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto that allow the user’s smartphone to be connected to the touchscreen, providing the look and feel of the phone interface, warmed up users to trying voice commands behind the wheel. Those soon were followed into the cockpit by the addition of Alexa and other app-based virtual assistants. Meanwhile, inside the home, smart speakers have conditioned more people to converse with hardware.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have become ubiquitous. Car companies also have their own embedded systems, typically accessed through a button on the steering wheel. And lately, more auto makers are building Google Assist and other third-party systems into the guts of the car to allow for commands that go beyond the multimedia system, such as adjusting seats or turning up the heat.

In the future, as advances in partially automated features are expected to take over more driving tasks, auto makers envision combining voice functionality with entertainment offerings, like gaming, or productivity tools such as email.

Among advances expected in voice, Stellantis in 2024 plans to introduce STLA SmartCockpit, which will use voice tech combined with cameras and sensors that interpret hand gestures and glances to, for instance, automatically pick a parking spot. The system, which uses Amazon technology, will also allow users to ask for help configuring the garage door opener at home, for example, or verbally request that the car switch on the four-wheel-drive system, Mr. Curic says.

Verbal instruction from the car can be more effective and less distracting for the driver than messages on a screen, Mr. Curic said. If the vehicle is going too fast to make the switch to four-wheel-drive that a driver has requested, a voice message explaining the situation is more easily digested, he said.

General Motors Co. and other auto makers are working to allow users to tap into the car’s owner’s manual—that dense brick that normally sits unused in the glove compartment—by asking the car questions.

GM plans to deliver a remote software update in coming months to its recently launched Cadillac Lyriq, an electric SUV, that will offer verbal instructions. A passenger’s question on how to set the position of the car’s seats would elicit the answer: “Use the ‘set’ button and one of the two ‘memory’ buttons located on the door panel. Would you like me to walk you through it?”

Some cockpit systems are getting better at analyzing your voice.

Mr. Kathpal, from Cerence, said the company has developed a feature that can authenticate a voice to securely purchase something online, for example. Meanwhile, the system can detect the user’s tone and pitch for signs of stress or agitation, and adjust by remaining silent, or playing soothing music.

“If you’re stressed, you want the voice out of the way,” he said.

Cerence is trying to take voice commands outside the car with a feature that uses a small microphone embedded on the roof that allows the user to ask for the doors or windows to open. It works only with the owner’s preset voice identification.

Auto makers also are offering more voice-enabled entertainment options.

Mercedes-Benz is testing a system in Germany that it calls Tourguide: The driver can ask the voice assistant to describe points of interest along the route, such as a sports stadium or historic church. The company is considering introducing the feature in North America, a spokesman said.

Cerence is developing a karaoke feature it calls Cerence Sing, which allows the driver to follow the lyrics without becoming distracted, said Duygu Kanver, the product manager in charge of the feature. Instead of reading the words on the vehicle’s screen, the user can interrupt to ask the computer voice to repeat the most recent section of lyrics.

“The goal is to create a very good experience for the whole car, maybe scoring the singing performances,” Ms. Kanver said. “There’s a lot more to come.”

Mike Colias is a reporter based in The Wall Street Journal’s Detroit bureau, where he covers the automotive industry, including General Motors.

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