Almost all vehicles sold in America today are programmed to respond to a driver's voice commands. But still on the frontiers of automotive research are vehicles that can determine what a driver really wants -- and respond intelligently.
Getting to that point is a profound engineering challenge that is leading researchers beyond voice recognition and into the realm of artificial intelligence. It will require auto companies, suppliers and their technology partners to delve into the building blocks of language and to teach computers to understand humans as well as humans understand one another.
It's one of the "hardest, long-standing challenges in artificial intelligence," says Tim Tuttle, CEO of Expect Labs, a San Francisco company that works on refining voice-recognition technology.
For Expect Labs, context is everything. Its MindMeld platform helps app developers and device makers integrate voice commands with other inputs to make more sense of the directions. For instance, if a driver is in the car at 8 a.m. and asks the navigation system to find a coffee shop, the car can surmise that the driver is likely on the way to work and can identify a coffee shop along the usual route. The idea is that these voice-powered interfaces should be able to process more than the simple command and respond the way a human would.
A competing platform from a company called api.ai would allow a car's system to respond to less specific commands: for example, navigating to the nearest grocery store, even if all the driver says is, "I'd like to do some shopping and buy eggs and carrots."
One key objective for technology companies is to simplify the language itself, allowing humans to interact with a car's computers in a natural, more conversational way, rather than through prescribed commands or a stilted syntax.
Gint Puskorius, manager of voice signal processing at Ford's Research and Advanced Engineering division, explains that if a driver issues a command to set the temperature at 70 degrees and then says, "Make it a little cooler," the car's system should remember the temperature was at 70 and set it to 69.
"The memory of what we were in a dialogue about" needs to be part of "future-generation systems that are more natural and more interactive," he said.