Automakers seek 'natural' cure for infotainment aches
Last week, Consumer Reports once again rapped MyFord Touch.
Ford's infotainment system is "needlessly complicated and finicky," the magazine concluded.
And the problem of difficult-to-use infotainment isn't limited to Ford. Also last week, a J.D. Power and Associates study concluded that factory-installed navigation systems have been getting harder to use.
But what isn't in the news is an intense, behind-the-scenes race to find what automakers see as the cure to clunky infotainment systems: natural language.
If all goes well, natural language systems -- which not only understand precise, rigid commands but can deduce a user's intent by the context -- will enable motorists to activate infotainment apps by using conversational phrases just as users of iPhone or Android smartphones do.
For example, a traditional command menu might require the driver to say, "USB, play artist Beyonce." If the user gets one word wrong, the audio system won't obey. Natural language allows the user to say, "I'd like to listen to Beyonce" or "Let's play Beyonce."
Much is at stake in the race for natural language. Young consumers with ubiquitous smartphones are clamoring for more apps, and automakers are eager to comply. But without a language that cars understand, the promise of the connected car will remain unfulfilled.
"The car's navigation screen is embedded in the console, and it looks nice, but will it work better than my smartphone?" says analyst Mike Van Nieuwkuyk of J.D. Power. "Consumers say, 'My phone can do it. Why can't my car?'"
Better, but ...
To some degree, automakers can enhance conventional voice systems so that they recognize variations of a basic command. For example, Ford Sync understands 10,000 commands, up from 100 when it was introduced it in 2007.
"We made some really nice improvements that make the conversation more natural," said Ford spokesman Alan Hall. "But I would not call it the sort of natural language technology that is found in Dragon Drive."
Dragon Drive is a natural language technology developed by Nuance Communications Inc. of Burlington, Mass.
Some of the functions that automakers want to add -- such as dictation of text messages -- are tasks that conventional voice technology can't handle. So the race is on for automakers to adopt natural language technology.
BMW and Chrysler have rolled out Dragon Drive. Hyundai has announced plans to incorporate some Dragon Drive features into its next generation of vehicles, and five other automakers -- as yet unnamed -- will follow suit over the next year or so.
"It's definitely a megatrend," crowed Arnd Weil, Nuance Mobile's vice president of automotive. "With Dragon Drive, you can talk naturally and you don't need to memorize the exact command."
So is the problem solved? Hardly. Dragon Drive isn't a black box that you simply bolt into your cockpit. Natural language requires a quiet passenger cabin, a good microphone and lots of computing power.
Automakers can call on suppliers such as Harman, Bosch, Panasonic and Denso to help design the cockpit audio system and acoustics. But automakers are still figuring out how to provide enough computing power.
The natural language function in your smartphone gets its computing power from its data link to the "cloud" -- remote data centers that are accessible on the Internet. Siri, Apple's natural voice technology, and the similar Google Robin can't function without the cloud.
The cloud also can provide computing power for your car's infotainment system.
If an automaker doesn't want to spend much money, it can install a "dumb" screen in the center console that displays a smartphone's apps. Your phone, in turn, provides the necessary data link to the cloud for your car's navigation, Internet radio, e-mail, etc.
As long as your smartphone has access to the computing power of the cloud, that solution should work well. But when a vehicle is in a location where the cloud is not available, its dumb screen starts to look -- well, pretty dumb.
There's a solution for that. For times when the vehicle is out of range of the cloud, automakers can design an onboard infotainment system that can handle basic functions such as route guidance and a motorist's list of telephone numbers.
But that requires the installation of a computing chip to the center stack at additional cost. Ford adopted that approach with its Sync voice technology, which can work in any location.
It's too early to tell whether Dragon Drive -- or any other natural language voice technology -- will be the auto industry's answer to Apple's Siri. But automakers had to try something.
That becomes clear when one drills down into J.D. Power's recent study of factory-installed navigation systems.
The Agoura Hills, Calif., research firm asked 20,704 owners of 2012 models to rate their nav systems. Six of 10 problems most frequently reported by motorists were caused by the systems' input and selection controls.
Of the various navigation features, voice activation scored lowest in customer satisfaction. Yet 80 percent of respondents who have a voice-activated navigation system said they would want that feature in their next infotainment system anyway -- strong evidence that car owners favor more intuitive voice controls.
To fix that problem, automakers have adopted two strategies. One is to provide an OnStar-style concierge service. If the motorist wants directions to a point of interest, he can punch a button and get help from a human being in a call center.
Some automakers, such as Infiniti and Lexus, in addition to General Motors, provide concierge services to customers. But that's a pricey proposition.
A less costly approach is to encourage dealers to troubleshoot their customers' infotainment systems, as Ford does with MyFord Touch and Sync.
Ford pays a $50 spiff to dealerships that sell a vehicle equipped with Sync and $75 for vehicles with Sync and MyFord Touch. Dealers use the money for staff training.
Ford dealerships also invite car owners back to the store for informal infotainment Q&As.
One-on-one sessions with customers are especially helpful for older motorists, says Jeff Carlson, owner of a Ford dealership in Glenwood Springs, Colo.
"It's a matter of sitting in the car and letting us explain it," Carlson said. "You have to attack these problems on a personal level."
Dealerships are asking for trouble if they treat customer complaints about infotainment as an ordinary repair problem.
"The service department will say, 'It's working as designed,'" Carlson noted. "Then I have to go back to the customer and say, 'It's not broken; the problem is with you.' That's the worst thing I can say."
You can reach David Sedgwick at firstname.lastname@example.org.