February 15, 2001 USA TODAY Autos

Carmakers match voices to brands

DETROIT -- Even though alone in the car, a driver of a 2001 Cadillac Seville could be hearing voices -- and not from the radio.

With the car's OnStar telematics and concierge services plus a navigation system, three different recorded voices and a live OnStar adviser could be telling the driver where to turn, reading e-mail and stock quotes, and giving directions to the nearest Chinese restaurant.

By mid-decade, just about every new car sold in the USA will come with an option for voice-based navigation and communications services of some kind. What automakers and their suppliers are trying to figure out is what those voices should sound like and how much variety to offer customers.

Should the voice be male or female (most are female now)? Should it sound like a butler or an executive assistant? A loving, chatty wife or perhaps a personal trainer?

Speaking of the brand

The most important consideration when choosing a voice for a navigation or telematics system is "that the voice be a logical extension and reflection of the brand," says Paula Skokowski, vice president of marketing for General Magic, the firm that supplies General Motors' OnStar system with voices and software.

Honda-owned Acura, which scored highest in the 2000 J.D. Power and Associates survey of customer satisfaction with auto navigation systems, has the voice of a bilingual Japanese actress intoning directions. Though she has no official name, Scott Crail, assistant director of product planning, calls her Midori because her voice "is smooth as liqueur."

In a Range Rover, a driver might feel as if he is touring the Yorkshire Dales with a voice that almost begs to be called Nigel or Clive announcing entrances to "motorways" and warning of oncoming "roundabouts."

Land Rover's Rod MacKenzie says the voice is meant to come off like an English butler, and that the company included some Brit speak in its U.S. navigation system to be consistent with Land Rover's British heritage.

But when it came to selling Range Rovers in Italy, not only did the company have to find an Italian voice, dealers told Land Rover it needed to be almost argumentative in tone, as if it were haggling over the price of prosciutto.

Mark Poole, principal engineer of Jaguar's S-Type, says his company's research shows that a female voice has more universal appeal. Like Land Rover, Jaguar has left in a few English colloquialisms for brand flavor, including "car park" for parking garage and "petrol station" for gas station.

Mike Peterson, director of OnStar's Virtual Advisor service, says that while there is widespread affection for the system's current voice, Mary, customers soon will be able to choose a male voice, possibly even a British one. "Testing shows a great deal of appeal in a male British voice," he says. "And we have to offer choice to be competitive."

Mark Willingham, vice president of marketing for HeyAnita, a Los Angeles company developing in-car voice services, agrees. "Offering choices and variety is definitely where the market is going," he says.

Jaguar uses British actress Susan Skipper for the British English in its navigation system, but drivers can switch over to American English, as well as Italian, French, German and Spanish.

Some well-known voices soon may be heard on OnStar. News and sports are now read by an army of anonymous voice actors at General Magic, but OnStar is looking for tie-ups with a news network to get recognizable voices to report on stocks and scores.

In turn, networks are interested in having their news talent provide tailored content for OnStar, because they see in-car telematics as the next big thing, Peterson says. "They were late to cable and the Internet. They don't want to miss this one."

Are you paying attention?

GM thinks its customers will become so dependent on the voices that it is already worrying about OnStar fatigue. In its latest version, Mary varies her responses to the driver after being told to shut down. Instead of always saying "I'll take a break," her responses now include "I'll have a cup of coffee" and "Holler when you're ready."

Skokowski says General Magic is even looking at recording the actress who is the voice of Mary when she has a cold to give her more human dimensions.
Skokowski says personality is important in a voice. OnStar tested a myriad of personalities before settling on Mary, who is described as an executive assistant who likes people and likes being thought of as "the brain behind the brain." Other personalities, including chatty and motherly, were chucked.

Willingham says automakers also are interested in matching voices to situations. "A male voice seems to be preferred for roadside assistance, but for other services, female or even a young, hip male voice works better."
Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo are now owned by Ford Motor, and the companies eventually will share navigation and telematics systems. But each will choose voices to fit its personality.

Volvo uses a male American voice for its navigation system. But public relations manager Dan Johnston muses that he would like the Swedish-based company to use a Swedish-accented female.

"Then again," says Johnston, "we want our drivers to be concentrating on the road."

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