Cadillac Cue brings Siri-style voice commands to cars

Cadillac wants to let drivers have natural conversations with their cars and get physical feedback from a touchscreen in some models coming as soon as next year.

At the CTIA Enterprise & Applications mobile trade show this week, General Motors’ top luxury brand is showing off Cue, a new set of car control and entertainment options built around technology familiar to users of mobile phones. Elements of Cue will be available as standard features or options in Cadillac XTS, ATS and SRX models starting next year.

Cadillac has used touchscreen technology for many years, and rival Ford has made many functions controllable through voice commands. But Cue is designed to take both technologies to new levels. It uses NLP (natural language processing) so drivers can express their wishes to the system in whatever way they want, and haptic feedback — vibration of the interface — to give drivers more information about what they’ve just done.

These controls are found primarily in a “center stack” of controls in the middle of the dashboard that manage and display entertainment, navigation and environmental functions. Cadillac showed off a version of that stack in a real dashboard at a media event near the conference. It consists of an 8-inch (20-centimeter) touchscreen at the top, capable of twice the brightness of an iPad for visibility in bright daylight, and a panel below with raised tabs that look like chrome levers. But the panel has no mechanical parts and instead just responds to light touches.

Technology on wheels at the Canadian International Auto Show

Both the screen and the panel respond to the driver’s touch with various vibrations, including one that makes scrolling down a menu feel like running your fingers over a ribbed surface. In addition to the controls in the center stack, there are mechanical buttons and tabs on the steering wheel for controlling many settings. On some models, there will even be a virtual instrument cluster right in front of the driver that can be changed to display information about navigation, phone calls and other functions along with current speed.

The NLP voice-recognition technology, which Cadillac got from Nuance Communications, lets drivers use any phrasing to ask for things such as a radio station or music from a particular artist. Cadillac engineers put it through extensive testing, even going on vacation with families, to make sure it’s flexible enough to use in the real world, said Mike Hichme, an engineering group manager.

This type of language recognition has been evolving for years and hasn’t always worked as promised, said industry analyst Chetan Sharma of Chetan Sharma Consulting. “I’m a little bit skeptical every time someone comes out with NLP,” Sharma said. Also, consumers may not even need total freedom to talk to their cars as they please, because when making the kinds of requests that Cue is designed to handle, people tend to use a fairly narrow range of wordings, he said. A system such as Ford’s Sync, which doesn’t use the same level of NLP, is usually adequate, he said.

However, the release of Apple’s iPhone 4S, with its Siri NLP software, may change consumers’ expectations over time if Siri really works well, Sharma said.

Because cars take so long to design, Cadillac had to predict the future of device interfaces from the time they started developing Cue four or five years ago, Hichme said. That was just as the first iPhone was coming into the market. Touchscreens weren’t yet the standard for mobile device interfaces.

“You can imagine, just in our organization, the tension,” Hichme said. “There was no iPad reference when we started.”

Many types of connected applications like those on mobile phones will be integrated into Cue at some level. For example, Cue will be able to read out text messages sent to the driver, though it won’t translate a driver’s speech into texts to send out, and it will let users send Internet radio and other online services through the entertainment and information system. Cue will incorporate its own browser, Cadillac said.

Drivers will be able to connect as many as 10 devices to Cue via Bluetooth, USB, an SD card slot and other interfaces. But company officials weren’t able to confirm whether the system will link to the Internet via Bluetooth and the driver’s phone, or in some other fashion. Cadillac will need to work that out and not leave it up to the buyer of an expensive luxury car to work out how to link the vehicle to the Internet, analyst Sharma said.

All the functions that Cue allows will meet standards set by the industry group Automotive Alliance for minimal driver distraction, Hichme said. The Alliance counts each glance away from the road a two-second distraction, and they allow no more than six glances for any task. So although there is a full QWERTY keyboard available on the center touchscreen, it can’t be used to type in an address while the car is moving. If the drivers tries to do so, Cue will initiate a voice session instead.

Because drivers typically keep their cars for much longer than they do electronic devices, Cadillac needed to make Cue as flexible as possible for future updates. For that reason, the user interface system for the car synonymous with luxury and expense will be based on Linus Torvalds’ legendary free operating system, Linux.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service.

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