Carmakers want desperately to provide drivers with more entertainment and information, while motorists keep their eyes on the road. Advances in voice recognition could help them do so.
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You know, Steve, sometimes we help each other out in here and have a back-and-forth about how to pronounce something.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Yeah, like is it David Greene or David Grenee (ph), for example?
GREENE: (Laughter) Right. I mean, I think earlier I asked if the Greek prime minister was Alexis Sip-ras (ph) or See-pras (ph)?
INSKEEP: And I think we settled on See-pras (ph).
GREENE: We did. But when we were talking, I kept looking down at the script to re-read that name, which is fine here, but it's not OK if I were driving. And this kind of distraction is actually one of the problems that's come up as car companies are trying to perfect infotainment. This is Bluetooth, GPS and other gadgets. Here's Sonari Glinton from NPR's Planet Money team.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: By and large, cars on the road today are pretty good. Jake Fisher with Consumer Reports say they're safer, more powerful and more fuel efficient than ever.
JAKE FISHER: In terms of even reliability, most cars are pretty good these days. But when it comes to infotainment, it's still pretty much the Wild West. There's some really good systems, and there's some really bad systems out there.
GLINTON: The most widely ridiculed systems have been the ones created by Ford Motor Company - MyFord Touch and SYNC. Fisher says part of the reason the Ford systems have been so bad is that, well, they were ahead of their time.
FISHER: The problem there is by being so bold and trying to be so cutting-edge, they really had all those growing pains - interface problems and reliability problems, too.
GLINTON: One of the key sticking points for SYNC and most car infotainment systems is voice recognition. Getting the voice part right is seen as an important step in getting the whole infotainment element right in a car. Ford has come up with a third generation of its SYNC system, and the company felt so confident about this formerly terrible system that they made me a challenge. Their voice-recognition system will recognize whatever names I threw at it, even supposedly difficult NPR names. Mike Levine with Ford Communications brought over a car, and we put it through its paces.
MIKE LEVINE: So what you're going to do is, with the voice button access SYNC, you're going to say, call Ari Shapiro.
GLINTON: This is a big day to calling Ari Shapiro, so I don't know if he'll answer, but let's see.
Call Ari Shapiro.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I didn't get that.
GLINTON: OK, OK, to be completely fair to Ford, my phonebook hadn't completely downloaded at that point. We'll get back to how Ford did later.
DAN MCGEHEE: Distraction has been around much longer than the cellphone. I mean, driver attention was the number one cause of crashes 30 years ago, before the phone.
GLINTON: I talked to Dan McGehee at the University of Iowa. He studies what makes people crash. He says the data are mixed when it comes to safety and voice-recognition.
MCGEHEE: When people use voice entry, they want to look somewhere and you want to sort of validate what you're saying is correct. But voice entry by and large is getting much better, but there are also lags in understanding, recognition errors and so forth that add to the distraction.
GLINTON: So the car eventually got Ari Shapiro right. I mean, that's easy, so we decided to test a list of more difficult and less well-known NPR names.
GLINTON: Call Brendan Banaszak.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Calling Brandon Bana-shik (ph) on cell.
GLINTON: He should pronounce it that way.
LEVINE: I think we're 5 for 5, or 6 for 6 right now.
GLINTON: OK, I have the longest name at NPR. He's one of my favorite people at NPR Music - call Patrick Jarenwattananon.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Calling Patrick Jarenwattananon at home.
GLINTON: Oh, look. All right.
LEVINE: Bam. There you go, 7 for 7. Is that where we're at? How's that for voice-recognition?
GLINTON: Getting the voice-recognition part is only one step - a baby step. Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.