Voice recognition gets human backup
Infiniti, Hyundai use call centers to bolster infotainment systems
Despite voice recognition's growing popularity, two brands -- Infiniti and Hyundai -- have hedged their bets on infotainment systems by using call centers to backstop voice commands.
This belt-and-suspenders approach, in which human operators interpret a motorist's command when software is unable to do so, suggests that certain basic drawbacks to voice recognition technology have yet to be fully solved.
But for Agero Inc., which provides backup call centers for Infiniti and Hyundai, voice technology's failings are a business opportunity.
Here's how the system works with Infiniti Connection, which debuted March 28 in the new Infiniti JX luxury crossover.
Users get a menu of 18 services by using voice commands or by connecting directly with a call center.
If the motorist uses voice recognition -- say, by requesting route guidance to a particular hotel -- the software determines whether it understands the command properly.
If there's any doubt -- perhaps because of an unfamiliar accent, an unknown destination or excess cabin noise -- the software automatically transmits the spoken command to a call center, and an operator interprets the command.
The operator transmits the interpretation back to the vehicle's infotainment system, which handles the request.
The call center's participation delays the infotainment system's response by a few seconds. That's the only tip-off to the motorist that a human operator was involved.
This approach to voice technology was developed by Agero -- formerly known as ATX -- of Irving, Texas.
Over the past decade, Agero built a successful OnStar-style business by operating traditional call centers for BMW, Toyota, Lexus, Infiniti and Rolls-Royce.
Several years ago, Agero rolled out its new call center service -- a human backup for voice recognition -- and now it has two customers, Infiniti and Hyundai.
While it's too early to judge the appeal of Infiniti Connection, executives at Hyundai say they are pleased with their Blue Link infotainment system.
Last summer Hyundai rolled out Blue Link in the Sonata sedan and then in the Veloster crossover.
After eight months on the market, Hyundai says it is exceeding its renewal targets for buyers who got free service for the first six months of ownership.
And a majority of renewing customers are choosing the upscale Guidance package for $279 per year, said Barry Ratzlaff, director of Hyundai's connected car program.
"We are seeing a higher take rate for the full package than we had planned on," Ratzlaff said. "The majority of renewals are taking the top package. We were surprised by that."
Blue Link's high renewal rate is a win for Agero, but Hyundai's backup call center suggests that some drawbacks to voice recognition technology linger.
Why does Blue Link, which employs Nuance Communications' popular voice recognition software, require human backup?
There's nothing wrong with the software, says Thomas Schalk, Agero's vice president of voice technology. The problem is with vehicle acoustics.
A vehicle's hands-free speakerphone sometimes generates an echo effect, making it difficult for voice recognition software to understand the command, Schalk said.
"I don't see [call centers] going away for a number of years," Schalk said, "not until the vehicle becomes more like a recording studio, so that there's no voice distortion."
You can reach David Sedgwick at email@example.com.