Many Cars Tone Deaf To Women's Voices

Female voices pose a bigger challenge for voice-activated technology than men's voices

Rebekah Page-Gourley, an attorney from Detroit, loves pretty much everything about her new 2012 Ford Focus. She even raves about the windshield wipers.

But she's not as thrilled with the voice-command system, which lets her change radio stations and make phone calls by speaking to the car. It often can't understand what she says – although it has no problem hearing her husband, Jason, when he tries talking to it from the passenger side.

"I do find myself screaming at it sometimes," she says. "I look like a crazy person screaming at my car."

Despite strides in voice-activated technology, carmakers acknowledge that women have a tougher time using speech-recognition technology than men. The industry is promoting voice-activated technology as a solution to distracted driving concerns, even though the systems aren't yet entirely reliable for many people.

Safety advocates like the Governors Highway Safety Association say drivers are distracted by a growing number of gadgets that cause them to look away from the road, such as cellphones, MP3 players and GPS devices. They believe drivers' divided attention is behind an increase in fatal accidents caused by distracted driving: Distracted driving was a factor in 16 percent of all fatal accidents in 2009, up from 10 percent in 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But the auto industry argues that drivers will never put away their phones and other devices, so voice-activated technology is the only option to keep drivers focused on the road. Drivers can call, text, use the GPS and even select from thousands of songs on an iPod, all while looking straight ahead.

When the technology actually works, that is.

Only the most sophisticated systems work consistently. And even the best ones have some persistent flaws: Women's voices can be tricky for the technology to decipher, especially when using navigation, causing many female drivers to give up trying. Drivers with foreign accents say it won't work for them. Even drivers with thick regional accents can have trouble.

Despite the glitches, Page-Gourley says she feels more comfortable using SYNC to make phone calls than flipping through screens on her cellphone. Even though SYNC often doesn't recognize who she wants to call when she tries to reach her husband, it will give her a list of potential phone numbers she might have been asking for, and often her husband's name is on that list.

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Voice technology has improved over the years

The systems have come a long way in the past ten years. When Star Maeder Stokes purchased a Buick Rendezvous in 2005, she struggled for hours to program the voice-activated phone system so she could make a call without looking away from the road.

Frustrated, she called OnStar for help. She was shocked at the customer service response:

"The guy told me point blank it wasn't ever going to work for me," Stokes says. "They told me to get a man to set it up."

OnStar spokesman Adam Denison says the General Motors' system has evolved over the past 10 years. Improvements were made first for males, then females, then Midwestern speakers. Finally it was adjusted for Southern speakers and people from New England. "Today the technology has advanced such that it works for both genders and nearly all dialects," he says.

Foreign accents still stump most systems. David Champion, who leads Consumer Reports' auto testing department, often stymies cars with his British accent. His voice isn't even picked up by British car brands, like Land Rover. When he asks it to do something, the car will respond in a British accent, saying, "Sorry?"

People lose patience easily with voice technology, Champion says. Drivers start getting annoyed if they have to repeat something once or twice. "Once you get to three times, you think this is a piece of junk," he says.

When evaluating the technology, husbands and wives are often divided. George Luczkiewicz from Blackwood, N.J., loves the SYNC system in his 2009 Ford F-150. "It's awesome, once you learn the little nuances of it," he says.

His wife, Michele, on the other hand, thinks the system behaves like HAL 9000, the nefarious computer from "2001: A Space Odyssey." It revolts against everything she requests. She asks to make a telephone call, and it offers the radio. She asks for navigation, and it offers the telephone.

"It really screws with my wife when she talks to it," Luczkiewicz says. "She gets mad and yells at it."

Once she's lost her patience, he says, she does the obvious: She picks up her phone and dials manually.

Ford says they've mostly overcome the difference in male and female voices by collecting 50 percent more female voice samples than male samples. The computers misunderstand female voices 2 percent more often than male voices, a statistically negligible difference.

"SYNC customers by and large are satisfied and happy with the system," says Wes Sherwood, a spokesman for Ford. "We're very pleased with customer satisfaction and we're going to continue to improve."

Car companies have a big incentive to sell more of the technology: The Department of Transportation has identified distracted driving as one of its top safety concerns. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has met with the top executives at seven car companies, including General Motors, Ford, Toyota, and Honda, to discuss what the companies can do to keep distractions at a minimum. Last year, LaHood called Ford complaining about a commercial promoting SYNC. The woman in the ad was driving down the road, looking out every window except the front one.

LaHood won't say whether he thinks voice recognition technology will solve the problem. He's leaving it up to the industry to figure that out.

"We're hoping that they'll put their creative juices to work in helping us solve this very, very serious and dangerous problem," he said during a recent press conference.

LaHood has said he believes being on the phone causes cognitive distractions -- drivers may have their eyes on the road, but their brains are somewhere else. His solution doesn't include voice-activated technology -- it involves encouraging drivers to put their cellphones in the glove compartment.

If the systems worked perfectly -- and many times they do -- they would allow drivers to stay connected while on the road. But safety advocates such as Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, argue that too often, things go wrong, leaving drivers tinkering with display screens instead of watching the road.

"Why do we need to be doing this?" asks Adkins. "Driving is a really complex task; you have to be able to react to what other cars are doing. If you're fiddling with these systems, it can be the difference between life and death."

Next step: Natural speech patterns, more training

In an attempt to make the technology less distracting, software developers are trying to make the process more natural. Ideally, drivers would feel like they are talking to a passenger in the car, says Tom Schalk, vice president of voice technology for auto supplier ATX Group.

Schalk says drivers will bring technology into their cars, even if it's legally banned. They'll continue talking on cellphones and twiddling with their GPS systems, looking away from the road while doing it.

"There's really no other way to enter text or other types of information without using your hands or eyes," Schalk says. He predicts technology will fix problems with voices and accents quicker than many people expect, possibly even within the next 12 months.

Many issues with women's voices could be fixed if female drivers were willing to sit through lengthy training, Schalk says. Women could be taught to speak louder, and direct their voices towards the microphone. But he admits that most customers don't have the patience to figure it out, and are then easily discouraged. Even if a system successfully works 85 to 90 percent of the time, many drivers grow frustrated and call it a failure.

But sometimes the mistakes just turn into laughter. Anthony Castillo has a Ford Fusion, and generally loves the SYNC system. But when he wants to make his kids laugh, he tells it to call his wife, Amy.

Instead, it calls someone from Castillo's phone book named Peter Schkeeper.

"It gets them laughing every time," Amy Castillo says.

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