In just five years, talking to your car has gone from a whispered prayer when you fear the battery is dead to a reason to choose one brand over another. Leading automakers have poured resources into new systems that respond to spoken commands and seamlessly integrated features from smartphones.
The best of the systems reduce distraction. They make driving easier and more pleasant. The worst can infuriate customers and devastate an automaker's reputation.
Each of the new systems from the Detroit Three has its strengths. Ford is proud of Sync's control of audio and voice commands to smartphones. The latest MyFord Touch iteration, an 8-inch touch screen, has improved after initial glitches. General Motors, both in Chevrolet's MyLink and Cadillac's CUE system, allows drivers to dictate an address simply and quickly. Chrysler's Uconnect emphasizes the ability to read text messages to the driver and translate spoken responses back into text.
Ford's Sync voice-recognition system was the first and best of the systems. It quickly became a major reason people bought Ford vehicles. Other automakers scrambled to catch up.
Chrysler, GM and Toyota all have introduced voice-recognition systems. Meanwhile, Ford added features to Sync and developed MyFord Touch, a controversial control panel that initially dispensed with traditional dials for many climate and audio controls. Recent Ford and Lincoln models have restored some of those conventional buttons and knobs.
Sync's response to commands became slower and less accurate. MyFord Touch made simple tasks too complicated, driving customers and reviewers to distraction.
Customer complaints about MFT damaged Ford's hard-won reputation for quality in third-party surveys by J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports. Despite that feedback, Ford's Sync was so far ahead of the competition that it's still better than the voice-recognition software in competing products. Like GM and Chrysler's systems, it combines spoken commands with steering wheel controls and a touch screen that can be easier to use than the rotary controllers and joysticks some brands use.
Straightforward, intuitive controls win this battle. If you're shopping, here's what to look for:
• Does the vehicle have Bluetooth for hands-free calls and streaming audio?
• Does it take just one or two quick commands to perform common tasks like making a phone call or dictating an address to the navigation system?
• Are the commands easy to remember, like natural speech?
• How quickly does it respond to commands?
• How accurately does it understand commands?
A bad system can reduce you to sputtering frustration, increasing driver distraction. A good one will make driving more relaxing and enjoyable for as long as you own the vehicle.