January 23, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Talk to the car with new tech

For anyone who has driven behind someone yapping on a cell phone while coasting at 10 miles per hour in a 40mph zone, here's a disquieting thought: Things may get worse before they get better.

Cell phones aren't the only gadgets in the car anymore. MP3 players, satellite radio, personal digital assistants, DVD players and mapping tools are quickly becoming common accoutrements of the modern car. And that means drivers have more buttons, keypads and click-wheels to twiddle with while navigating the road.

Obvious safety concerns and legislation in various states are forcing car makers to look for a solution--and one may be on the way with new technology that lets people keep their hands on the wheel and "tell" their gadgets what to do with voice controls.

"There's fairly significant demand for 'button intensive' features in the car (like) dual climate zones and satellite radio," which has more than 120 channels, said Jim Pisz, national manager for partnerships at Toyota. "The future for us is in the ability to control all of these features by voice."

Of course, it may be a few years before mass-production vehicles synchronize electronic devices for voice control, but momentum is building for features that let people ask for driving directions or call a friend without using their hands.

Last week, for example, Toyota partnered with a relatively unknown voice-search specialist, called VoiceBox, in Bellevue, Wash. In development for roughly three years, VoiceBox's technology differs from established voice tech on the market because it allows people to speak conversationally to operate car electronics, rather than having them memorize and deliberately sound out commands.

The two companies are developing natural-speech technologies for Toyota's cars, but Pisz would only say that they'll become more common in cars within the next few years. "We're evaluating it at the highest levels," he said.

VoiceBox recently signed a major deal with XM Satellite Radio to add voice-search capability to its channel-rich service, which is available to more than 6 million people in the United States, many of whom listen in the car.

VoiceBox has also teamed with Johnson Controls, one of the biggest technology suppliers to the auto industry. One early product of their deal is a node that lets people search music on Apple Computer's iPod by voice in the car. The product is expected to be available this year.

Scion and Fiat

"Wherever you have a large menu of files to choose from--song files, phone contacts, local directories--voice technology is inevitable," said Veerender Kaul, research manager for advanced auto technology at Frost & Sullivan, a research firm.

Certainly, for car navigation systems has been around for years, as it has for call centers. Many high-end to midrange vehicles like Lexus and Honda's Acura include voice command features for driving directions. But those technologies have long delivered a frustrating experience to consumers, thanks to a limited vocabulary of commands or poor recognition of synonyms and accents.

"The main problem is that most of the voice-based engines haven't been very reliable in the past," said Thilo Koslowski, vice president and lead auto analyst at market research firm Gartner.

VoiceBox's engineers think they can change that. It was founded in 2001 by Bob Kennewick, a Harvard University associate professor with degrees in economics and computer science. He recognized a fundamental problem with existing voice recognition, which required programmers to set up specific dictionaries for a given set of data, and then match speech to text. But users had to say the right words to make it work. Background noises could also muddle the translation.

His vision was to develop technology that could recognize the context of speech, picking up the right cues in a conversation to answer like a human would. For example, a request like: "Let me hear Cisco" could translate to the technology as a request to hear the singer Sisco, get a stock quote on the company Cisco Systems, or listen to the Johnny Cash song, "Cisco Spilling Station." The technology, which Kennewick developed, answers such a request by asking which of these options the person would like to hear.

In some contexts, the technology wouldn't need to provide options. A request for a stock quote on Microsoft followed by the name Cisco would immediately prompt another quote, for example. The VoiceBox technology would learn from experience by recognizing repeated requests for information and responding to personal preferences.

"It looks for clues in what you're saying and what you've said before to infer what you want, just like a human would," said Mike Kennewick, the founder's brother and current CEO of VoiceBox.

Mike Kennewick was a Microsoft business development executive for Windows in the 1980s. The brothers teamed up with two friends to found the company in 2001. It now employs more than 40 speech-recognition engineers.

According to Toyota and industry analysts, VoiceBox is one of only a handful of companies working on conversational voice-search technology.

OnStar, the telematics company inside General Motors, has long been an advocate of voice recognition in cars. Coming up on its 10th anniversary, OnStar has 4 million subscribers and its hardware is set to become standard equipment in GM cars by 2008. With the system, drivers push a button and talk to consultants to report an accident or unlock a door. (The company does about 1,000 airbag calls a month.) People also can make cellular calls from a built-in voice-activated mobile phone if they sign up with a program.

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7 comments

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Automotive Voice Control
My 2004 Infiniti M45 has voice control for climate control, entertainment and navigation systems. It works most of the time. I understand its limitations and work within them. It's not even as smart as a dog.

Unlike humans, it has trouble with other people in the car talking while I'm issuing a command. No child would have a problem hearing Mom say, "Now stop hitting your sister!", while Dad is talking to the oldest boy in the back seat about the score of his last basketball game. We have excellent signal processing that operates at a very high level of context and the meanings of words in that context. We can easily focus our listening to just one person among several others while they all are talking. Currently, machines have no hope of coming close.

So, yesterday while driving with my wife and looking for a particular street, I waited a few seconds for her to not be talking, pressed the talk button on the steering wheel and issued, "Navigation, where am I?". My car repeated in that perfect female American voice, "Navigation, where am I?" and showed me. If my wife had said even one quiet word, I would have been beeped at.

Good luck to these new innovators. They have a very long way to go.
Posted by Crunchy Doodle (41 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The problem is not one of controlling the gadgets...
...It is of controlling one's own thoughts.

The problem with all of the car gadgets is the same as the problem with using a cell phone while driving.

It doesn't matter if you are using a handheld cell phone or a speakerphone, searching through the radio stations by hand or by voice. The problem is that your attention is not on driving, where it should be.

If anything, fewer car gadgets would make the drivers and roads safer.
Posted by Jim Hubbard (326 comments )
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controlling gadgets
We just blew a wad and took delivery on a Prius. It is an electronic juke box. I'm sure it will take a few long days finding all the twists and turns in the whole interface. OTOH the display is most impressive. Not your ordinary dashboard. Important stuff is way up under the windshield and looks to be imune to washout by external sunlight or other illumination. Another thing is that it will display either metric or English measure for speed and distance. Neat touch when we go North.

It is awsome to sit in traffic with zero gas consumption. Engine startup is next to un-noticable. But the power is there. I asked around before purchase about source of the low voltage during shutoff. It turns out there is a regular 12V lead acid battery that keeps that part awake. So the light and fan loads have to be rechaged when the gas engine starts.

Once the sequences are put in the mind it will be as automatic as the present day vehicles.

Time and our memo book will show how close one can come to the fuel use numbers that the tests pronounce.

Since we already have three GPS hand helds we passed by the huge cost of built in navigator. Same for most of the other high cost stuff. Made the usual (for us) single payment for a clear title. In our state that saves recording fee and releases. Every buck counts. Now we start saving for next vehicle replacement in about 8-9 years. And earning interest until then.
Posted by bigduke (78 comments )
Link Flag
Reminds me of BMW Australia Story
I subscribe to different news feeds, and I remember technology like this entering the BMW market in Austraila. In June (2005)BMW tested it and called their integrated car technology "ConnectedDrive."
Posted by marileev (292 comments )
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wife talks all the time
I think she would overload this system
Posted by ErvServer (25 comments )
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I'm looking for the new <a href="http://autoya.info/new_infiniti_g37_sales_2010_january/" title="Infiniti G37">New Infiniti G37</a>. Does anybody know where to buy it?
Posted by comlover (1 comment )
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