Will Speech Tech Drive Us Crazy?


By Samuel Greengard

Speech recognition systems in cars have been stuck in neutral for years. You utter commands and the car winds up doing something entirely different--or you receive the digital equivalent of a "huh." I've reached the point at which I've pretty much given up on using the voice system in my Acura, unless it's to tell the car to adjust the cabin temperature to 72 degrees.

But the alternative--fiddling with a growing tangle of buttons, knobs and touch-screens--is distracting and dangerous. Nearly one-fifth of all collisions occur because people are doing things they shouldn't be doing while driving: texting, emailing, talking on the phone and looking down to change the satellite radio station. Carnegie Mellon researchers found that driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent.

So it was a positive step forward when Nuance announced last week that it is developing a natural-language voice command system that resembles Apple's Siri. The technology, called Dragon Drive, will be available for vehicles sometime this summer.

The system will learn a driver's voice and speech patterns, while filtering out road noise. You tell the system what you want to do--"play Calgary by Bon Iver," for example--and the car fires up the song. The system also allows drivers to dictate text messages and listen to emails.

I have no doubt that Dragon Drive will serve as a huge improvement over car speech systems that are the equivalent of a command prompt in MS-DOS. However, piling more activities into driving--even if they're made simpler--may not be the answer. A University of Utah study found that using a cell phone while driving, whether it's handheld or hands-free, delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent.

In the end, all of this begs a basic question: At what point do we humans, already pathetic at so-called multitasking, become so confused and overwhelmed behind the wheel that we reach the tipping point? When does the incremental addition of technology solutions create a bigger problem?

Let's hope that Nuance's natural-language approach provides a voice of reason. Otherwise, we may drive ourselves completely crazy trying to operate our increasingly complex cars.