Automakers called out on lousy voice recognition

Lindsay Chappell is the Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- The world's automakers are going to be doing a lot of cringing now that J.D. Power plans to lay into them for one of the most poorly executed technologies they peddle to consumers -- voice recognition.

In brief, vehicle voice-recognition technology is awful. It was lousy when it emerged in the early 1990s. And after 15 years of inclusion in vehicles across the price spectrum, it remains as lousy as ever.

Somehow, this has largely escaped the notice of industry quality mavens. But no more.

"We plan to dig a lot deeper into this problem," warns Kristin Kolodge, J.D. Power executive director of driver interaction and human machine interface.

In your clearest voice and with your simplest and most precise words, tell your car that you'd like for it to turn on the air conditioner. There is a good chance that a computer voice will respond that it is searching for nearby pizza restaurants.

And nobody does it well -- not Mercedes, not Toyota, not anybody.

"We're seeing that customers are being alienated by these systems," said Kolodge, who was recently recruited to Power from Chrysler, where she was involved in human interface engineering. "Customers are telling us that it is causing them to regret buying the vehicle they just bought."

Kolodge says owners are telling Power researchers that they sometimes pull over to the side of the road to communicate with their voice systems.

Last week at the CAR Management Briefing Seminars here, Kolodge showed an industry audience video footage of clearly speaking drivers being thwarted in their efforts to execute simple voice commands.

Power estimates that the industry has become satisfied with voice-recognition technology that works about 80 percent of the time. Imagine applying that "80 percent is OK" attitude to brake systems.

But Kolodge predicts: "The company that can get voice recognition right will win the race."

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at



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