Return of the Guru

Auto Voice Recognition Brings Challenges

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, November 15, 2011

I’ve been writing recently about the auto insurance-related problems that come with on-board, automated information/entertainment applications that will undoubtedly be a significant distraction for drivers.

The latest bells and whistles have come in the form of voice recognition technology. According to a recent posting from the Detroit Free Press, within a year automakers will introduce systems allowing drivers to, for example, make dinner reservations for the weekend by merely talking to his or her vehicle.

This capability already exists for smartphones, “but cannot be done yet in a car without a clunky, multistep conversation,” the posting notes, adding that service providers and automakers are rapidly improving vehicles' abilities to recognize and understand natural language commands.

If you have visions of being able to interact with your on-board computer as easily as Captain Kirk of Star Trek communicates with his futuristic systems, however, you may be disappointed. First, it’s not clear just how much training your voice system will need in order to differentiate between similar sounding but radically different phrases—such as “locate the Crab Shack” and “help with my bad back.”

Voice recognition has been with us for more than 10 years, but totally accurate natural language recognition is a prize that has yet to be won, as problems with IBM’s Watson computer have demonstrated. Watson, a highly-advanced system that ostensibly defeated past champions recently on Jeopardy!, still needed to have the game clues keyboarded in rather than simply responding to the voice of Alex Trebek. If such an advanced system couldn’t give us natural language recognition, one would have to believe that an on-board computer would need training to learn the speaker’s tones, inflections, accents and vocabulary.

Nonetheless, the ability of a car's communication system to handle voice commands is something most customers will soon expect all new cars to have, the Free Press posting says. There are many technological and regulatory hurdles, however, as carmakers introduce increasingly complex voice-controlled and touch-screen technologies into vehicles. That probably won’t stop auto manufacturers from offering such features, but it also means that problems will inevitably occur. After all, when have you ever seen version 1.1 of anything technological hit the market with no bugs?

From an insurance point of view, the problems will only be magnified if they involve the safety of vehicles and/or drivers and passengers. How much operational connectivity will be involved is a question that has yet to be answered. To be sure, the entertainment features are distracting enough, but a voice command that actually controls the vehicle’s progress is a different thing altogether.

Maybe it would be good to have your brakes instantly apply themselves if you yell, “Stop!” Then again, if you happen to yell this as a frustrated command to your two-year-old in the back seat, the sudden braking could start a tragic chain reaction of cars plowing into you from behind. How’s a computer to know the difference?

“Our customers overall are telling us that they want more, and that this is not a distraction for them,” says a Ford executive in the Free Press article. But having a customer say this is not a distraction is somewhat akin to that toddler screaming to stop for ice cream during every car ride. At some point, we need to insist that safety and health trump the desires of consumers.

Ara C. Trembly ( is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at

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