Cloud-based processing brings advances, though many drivers find them unreliable.

Share story

Every once in a while, just for laughs, Kevin Smith-Fagan tries to call a friend of his, Priscilla, using the voice-recognition system in his 2013 Chevrolet Volt.

“I’ve tried it so many times and it never gets it right,” says Smith-Fagan, an executive at a public television station in Sacramento, Calif. “It always thinks I’m saying ‘Chris,’ and I have like five people named Chris in my phone book, so it’s always interesting to see who’s getting the call.”

Voice control systems have been in cars for more than a decade, and great strides have been made in the technology’s ability to understand human speech. But many people still find these systems too unreliable, or annoying, to use for more than the most simple tasks, like “Call Mom.”

That is not stopping auto and tech companies from trying to give drivers the ability to do even more things by talking to their cars — while keeping their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. The efforts have some added urgency now, as states pass stricter laws aimed at curbing distracted driving. Under a California law that went into effect Jan. 1, holding or operating a phone while driving is now prohibited.

Ford Motor Co. recently announced that owners of its cars would soon be able to use Amazon’s Alexa voice-activated assistant in their vehicles. Drivers will be able to ask for a weather report, stream music from Amazon Music or add new appointments to their calendars. They will also be able to use Alexa from home to start or unlock their cars remotely.

But the automaker also envisions drivers using Alexa to help with other tasks — such shopping on Amazon. Stuck in traffic? You can take care of Valentine’s Day by saying, “Alexa, order flowers on Amazon.”

Other companies are moving in the same direction. Apple’s Siri can be used to control iPhone functions in cars, and Apple’s CarPlay software allows drivers to dictate text messages while driving, as well as program destinations into Apple Maps and have the route plotted on the car’s display. Google’s Android Auto can do the same.

In the past year, carmakers like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors have also introduced improved voice-recognition systems that can understand normal spoken words for many tasks. Older systems required drivers to learn specific commands.

Older cars used voice-recognition systems that were built into the car and had limited computing power and memory. Now that more and more cars have wireless connections, the voice-recognition processing can be done via the internet in distant computers and servers, what the tech industry calls the cloud.

That is an advantage Ford sees in using Alexa, says Don Butler, Ford’s executive director for connected vehicle and services. “If you have the voice recognition done outside the car, people will see a much greater ability to interpret normal, everyday speech,” he says.

With Alexa, a user will need to download an Alexa app to a phone and carry the phone in the car, creating the connection with the cloud.

Ford and Amazon have also developed a way to get Alexa to work seamlessly with a Ford car’s own built-in entertainment and navigation systems. Alexa will first be available in a few months in battery-powered and hybrid models such as the Focus Electric and Fusion Energi, and later in other Ford models.

“You can ask Alexa where the nearest Starbucks is, and have her program the address into the Ford navigation system,” Butler says.

For  Amazon, the collaboration with Ford is another illustration of a broader push by technology giants to push their versions of voice assistants, which are made to perform simple tasks such as turning on lights at home, playing music and fetching sports scores from the internet.

Apple was an early entrant into the market with its Siri assistant for iPhones. Google has its Assistant and a new connected speaker featuring the voice technology called Google Home. And Samsung, which has announced plans to buy the audio and automobile technology company Harman International Industries, last year agreed to acquire a voice assistant startup, Viv Labs.