Wingcast and BeVocal plan voice-driven telematics

Wingcast LLC, a joint venture of Ford Motor Co. and Qualcomm Inc. that plans to offer hands-free voice and data services in cars made by Ford and Nissan Motor Co. starting in the third quarter, will offer voice control for those services using software from BeVocal Inc., the companies announced Monday.

BeVocal’s software will allow drivers to dial a dash-mounted phone, get messages and receive direction, among other things, all through voice commands, said Amol Joshi, co-founder and vice president of marketing at BeVocal, in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Car-based computing and communication services, often called telematics, can help consumers and business users keep in touch and stay informed on the road, as well as giving a car maker up-to-date information about a car’s condition. Voice control is critical for in-car services because it allows drivers to keep their hands on the wheel. Several U.S. states have laws against handling a phone while driving.

Many of the voice-activated services Wingcast will be providing have been made feasible by recent advances in speech recognition and synthesis, analysts said.

Under its contract with San Diego-based Wingcast, BeVocal will provide a number of voice-activated services to drivers and passengers from its data centers across North America. Rather than equipping onboard computers with voice recognition capability, contact databases, navigational data and business directories, Wingcast will let drivers access all those resources over a wireless network connection, Joshi said.

To access any service, users need only press a button to be connected to BeVocal’s automated data centers. BeVocal’s systems then interpret the driver’s spoken commands and activate the requested services, most of which will be hosted at the data center, Joshi said.

BeVocal would provide some of those services, while other developers will create others. Any application that complies with the Voice XML (Extensible Markup Language) standard can interface with BeVocal’s systems, according to Joshi.

One of the services BeVocal will provide is turn-by-turn directions by a synthesized voice, guided by a GPS (Global Positioning System) in the car. BeVocal will also offer voice-activated phone dialing that uses an address book hosted at its data center. Customers also will be able to access voicemail as well as e-mail, which will be read over the car’s speakers by an automated system at the data center.

Wingcast will use Verizon Communications Inc.’s national cellular network, with tri-band phones that include analog capability for wide coverage, according to Mary Palmer, director of communications at Wingcast. The phone will be mounted in the car, but customers will be able to access the services from any phone via a toll-free number, she said.

Customers will also be able to connect to a live operator any time they like, and will be connected automatically to a live operator for emergency services, Palmer said.

Turning to BeVocal is a smart move that removes the burden of services development from Wingcast’s shoulders, said Thilo Koslowski, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in San Jose, California.

Consumers are likely to adopt these types of services slowly because most do not even understand them today, Koslowski warned. As a result, telematics companies are being cautious.

“Companies are realizing it might not be that worthwhile to invest that much money in their own telematics applications,” Koslowski said.

The first in-car services that customers will embrace are ones that let them use a phone hands-free in the car, he said. In North America, “the majority of cell phone calls are being made from inside (a) vehicle,” he said.

Although there is still work to be done to improve speech recognition and the quality of synthesized voices, a lot of progress has been made, analysts said.

“There have been great strides,” said Dan Miller, a senior vice-president at The Kelsey Group, a research company based in Princeton, New Jersey. With earlier systems, “there were some jarring moments when you had a machine read your mail, and it went from sounding like Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Cleopatra’ to sounding like the monster from a horror movie,” he added.