Every once in a while, just for laughs, Kevin Smith-Fagan tries to call a friend of his, Priscilla, using the voice-recognition system in his 2013 Chevrolet Volt.
“I’ve tried it so many times and it never gets it right,” said Smith-Fagan, an executive at a public television station in Sacramento, Calif. “It always thinks I’m saying ‘Chris,’ and I have like five people named Chris in my phone book, so it’s always interesting to see who’s getting the call.”
Voice control systems have been in cars for more than a decade, and great strides have been made in the technology’s ability to understand human speech. But many people still find these systems too unreliable, or annoying, to use for more than the most simple tasks, like “Call Mom.”
That is not stopping auto and tech companies from trying to give drivers the ability to do even more things by talking to their cars — while keeping their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. The efforts have some added urgency now, as states pass stricter laws aimed at curbing distracted driving.
This week at the International CES, the giant electronics conference in Las Vegas, Ford Motor Co. announced that owners of its cars would soon be able to use Amazon’s Alexa voice-activated assistant in their vehicles. Drivers will be able to ask for a weather report, stream music from Amazon Music or add new appointments to their calendars. They will also be able to use Alexa from home to start or unlock their cars remotely.
But the automaker also envisions drivers using Alexa to help with other tasks — such as shopping on Amazon. Stuck in traffic? You can take care of Valentine’s Day by saying, “Alexa, order flowers on Amazon.”
Other companies are moving in the same direction. Apple’s Siri can be used to control iPhone functions in cars, and Apple’s CarPlay software allows drivers to dictate text messages while driving, as well as program destinations into Apple Maps and have the route plotted on the car’s display. Google’s Android Auto can do the same.
In the past year, carmakers like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors have also introduced improved voice-recognition systems that can understand normal spoken words for many tasks. Older systems required drivers to learn specific commands.
With newer models, owners can program in a destination just by saying the address, as if speaking to another person. In older cars, the state, city and street have to be given one at a time and if you are lucky, each is correctly understood.
While more advanced systems like Alexa will make it easier for drivers to use voice commands, there are still hurdles. The biggest is just changing habits and persuading people to try talking to their cars.
On the day before Thanksgiving, Frank Krieber bought a 2016 Dodge Challenger, granite gray, with a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 engine, and the latest version of the Uconnect infotainment system. A few days later, when he set off on a road trip to Florida from his home in Michigan, he synced his phone to the car but didn’t bother to use the voice-recognition capabilities to enter destinations or handle other tasks.
“I probably should use it, but it’s just easier to put in an address manually, so I haven’t really played around with it,” said Krieber, a computer company sales exec. “My experience so far has been, when you tell it to do something, it doesn’t do what you want.”
Older cars use voice-recognition systems that are built into the car and have limited computing power and memory. Now that more and more cars have wireless connections, the voice-recognition processing can be done via the internet in distant computers and servers.
That is an advantage Ford sees in using Alexa, said Don Butler, Ford’s executive director for connected vehicle and services. “If you have the voice recognition done outside the car, people will see a much greater ability to interpret normal, everyday speech,” he said.
Ford and Amazon have also developed a way to get Alexa to work seamlessly with a Ford car’s own built-in entertainment and navigation systems. “You can ask Alexa where the nearest Starbucks is and have her program the address into the Ford navigation system for you,” Butler said.