Automobile voice commands: distracting and unreliable

Nov. 24, 2014

Voice-recognition trouble topped the list of U.S. car problems reported for 2014 models, according to the Wall Street Journal. Drivers reported 8.3 voice-recognition problems per 100 vehicles. Joseph B. White writing in the Journal says voice control can be “extremely buggy,” and efforts to get it to work can distract drivers.

The Journal report follows recent studies conducted at the University of Utah that show voice-recognition systems are distracting. “Even though your car may be configured to support social media, texting, and phone calls, it doesn’t mean it is safe to do so,” says University of Utah psychology professor and study leader David Strayer. “The primary task should be driving. Things that take your attention away make you a poor driver and make the roads less safe.”

One University of Utah study found that the Chevrolet MyLink system caused the most distraction, followed by Mercedes COMMAND, Ford SYNCH with MyFord Touch, Chrysler UConnect, and Hyundai Blue Link Telematics System. Toyota’s Entune was the least distracting of the systems studied.

The Toyota and Hyundai systems show “…these systems can be designed so they aren’t very distracting to drivers,” Strayer says.

A second study showed that using Apple iPhone’s Siri to send and receive text, post to social media, and access a calendar was more distracting than other voice-activated technologies—such as simpler systems that respond to voice commands to turn on the heat or tune the radio.

“Some of the most advanced technology, such as Siri, can lead to high levels of distraction when you’re trying to drive,” Strayer said. “When these systems become more complex, like sending text messages or posting to Facebook, it pushes the workloads to pretty high levels and may be dangerous while driving.”

The studies were conducted in conjunction with AAA.

In the Journal, White reports that the record 50 million cars recalled this year highlight the automotive industry’s problems with mechanical defects. However, comfort and infotainment trouble topped the Journal’s list of reported car problems. In addition to voice recognition, reported problems were associated with Bluetooth connectivity, navigation, media device ports, wind noise, and (oddly) center console storage and cup holders. Other problem cited include paint imperfections and materials scuffing or soiling easily. Automatic transmission—eighth on the list at 2.4 problems per 100 vehicles—was the only trouble spot that might fit into the traditional mechanical problem category.

Reports White, “Unlike smartphones, which are consistently redesigned and easily updated via the Internet, cars need long lead times before they hit the road, and this means technology embedded in cars at showrooms can be up to five years old.”

And despite the distraction problem with Siri that the University of Utah researchers found, White says, “Auto makers are looking to bypass their multiyear product cycles by making it easier for drivers to use the speech command systems already on their phones.”

For its part, Apple says the researchers didn’t test a version of Siri adapted to work in cars, according to White.

White reports that noise-suppression systems offer a way to improve the performance of voice-recognition systems, and he quotes Harman International Industries Inc. chief executive Dinesh Paliwal as saying, “This is big for us.”

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