In-Car Speech Recognition: The Past, Present, and Future

Last Updated July 20, 2016

“Alexa, adjust the temperature to 75 degrees.”

“Siri, find the phone number for a plumber in Ashford.”

“Cortana, retrieve the file marked Flora Database.”

Everyone from tech industry experts to casual shoppers at a local Best Buy has been introduced in some way to voice-activated technology.

The device penetration is largely due to the big-name innovators like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo, but the reality, and the untapped capabilities, go far beyond looking up a phone number.

Many of the newest voice-enabled technologies aren’t just innovative or high-tech, they’re also incredibly convenient.

Unfortunately, they haven’t even scratched the surface of their consumer potential; why wasn’t voice-recognition incorporated into the so-called “smart” television design, for example?

The benefits of other voice-enabled technologies aren’t quite as clear cut.

If you’re considering a voice-enabled coffee machine, you might be disappointed to discover that you still need to add the coffee grinds and water—but don’t worry, you’ll never have to press that pesky start button again!

One area where voice-activation is making huge strides, though, is in the automotive industry.

In-car speech recognition systems have become an almost standard feature in all many new vehicles on the market today.

It might not be groundbreaking, but it might just save your life (and money on your insurance premiums).

What made the automotive industry take to in-car speech recognition capabilities in such a big way, when the rest of the consumer market is still just experimenting with the technology?

This might be one area where sheer need drove the innovation, rather than just the ability to market a new concept or device to tech-hungry consumers.

Why In-Car Speech Recognition?

The days of getting in our cars and driving from point A to point B without any distractions is over.

Even though safe driving behaviors (and in many places, the law) requires us to ignore the constant phone calls, emails, and text messages while behind the wheel, that kind of disconnectedness isn’t the reality.

A lot of voice technology was driven—no pun intended—by the need to keep the public safe while still acknowledging the device-dependent epidemic.

Whether it’s a text message or using your Maps App, the impulse to take our eyes off of the road has become second nature.

In-car speech recognition systems aim to remove the distraction of looking down at your mobile phone while you drive. Instead, a heads-up display allows drivers to keep their eyes on the road and their mind on safety.

Companies like Apple, Google, and Nuance are reshaping the way voice-activation is used in vehicles. Here are some of the most popular systems that enable drivers to find directions, send emails, make phone calls, and play music, all by using the sound of their voice.

Apple CarPlay

CarPlay brings a stripped down and safety-focused version of iOS to your car’s touch-screen display.

Simply connect your iPhone and your car’s factory-installed entertainment system is replaced by Apple’s familiar icons.

Not surprisingly, Siri is fully integrated into CarPlay.

Press the voice button on your steering wheel and Siri will be there to help you switch between playlists, navigate to the nearest gas station, send text messages, and even email your boss with a stellar excuse about being stuck behind a school bus instead of at your early morning project meeting.

Apple recently announced that it’s opening Siri & Apple Maps to developers.

Soon, sending messages through WhatsApp, placing calls using Skype, or booking a dinner reservation in Apple Maps can all be done through CarPlay.

Google Android Auto

Android still dominates the global smartphone market, so Android fans will feel right at home with the paired-down version of their phone screens on their vehicles’ dashboard.

Unlike CarPlay, Android Auto connects via a USB cable, then relies on Bluetooth for voice phone calls through the car.

At the same time, all of the vehicle’s controls remain disconnected and ready to use, so it’s not being “taken over” by the phone.

Source: Maurizio Pesce

Once your phone is plugged into the car, Android Auto activates a unique and important safety feature.

It renders your phone basically useless to ensure you will not use it while driving.

There’s no need to pick it up, look at it, adjust the volume—nothing.

All five screens are closer to the driver’s field of vision, and in a larger format than a smartphone screen. Which, hopefully, results in less time with your eyes off the road.

Best of all, according to a review of Android Auto by The Verge, the vehicle option will not allow users to download those darn viruses and malware from third-party app stores.

Instead, Android Auto will rely on the Google Play store for content and upgrades.

Only ten brands and 45 models will feature Android Auto as an in-car speech recognition system upgrade in 2016.


Nuance may be less of a household name than Apple or Android, but that doesn’t make them any less of a game-changer.

As part of its Dragon Drive platform, the Dragon Drive Automotive Assistant combines Nuance’s voice, cloud, and connectivity components and offers a comprehensive suite of features and services.

Source: Good Car

One thing users may take to immediately is the “conversational” interface associated with Dragon Drive.

Its ability to process natural voice patterns is far more sophisticated compared to its competitors.

It’s a more enjoyable experience compared to the clinical instructions you must use when speaking to Siri or Alexa.

There are even voice bio metric capabilities that will recognize which user is speaking.

The daily update feature is also going to be a huge selling point with consumers. Especially among those who are trying to decide on a vehicle based on its on board voice options.

Dragon Drive “learns” your road behaviors and updates in order to meet your needs before even having to ask. This is a feature similar to Google’s Nest which “learns” and automatically adjusts for optimal temperature settings in your house.

Read the full case study: Voice Data Collection Services – Nuance

Brand-Specific Setups

Along with these broader, universal systems, car manufacturers have experimented with their own brand-specific systems.

Ford’s Sync, GM’s OnStar, even Mini Cooper (BMW’s “appeal to the millennials” brand) have a proprietary on-board digital system.

They typically, in some way or another, incorporate the driver’s phone and voice into navigation, entertainment, and other limited features.

Unfortunately, as many automakers have learned, the complete suite of features isn’t always easy to incorporate.

There are also various cyber security concerns associated with a connected in-car system.



No matter where in-car speech recognition goes next, consumers can rest assured that the focus is on equal parts safety and convenience.

Plus, luring customers to a product with the latest bells and whistles isn’t all bad for the tech companies either.

It’s important for drivers to remember that voice-activated does not equate to “distraction free”. While companies persuade us with promises of increased safety, it’s up to you to keep your eyes on the road.

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