Auto makers have had limited success delivering speech-recognition systems that enable drivers to control vehicle functions by giving simple voice commands.

Not long ago, a request such as “climate control, 72 degrees” might be badly misinterpreted and trigger an automated response such as, “playing CD, track 2,” leaving drivers needlessly frustrated and furious for having spent extra money for questionable technology.

Speech-recognition systems have gotten better, and Kia Motors America soon will launch a system it promises will be intuitive, intelligent and simple to operate.

“UVO powered by Microsoft” debuts this summer in the all-new ’11 Kia Sorento cross/utility vehicle and later will be available in other Kia vehicles, primarily those undergoing a full model change.

UVO is short for “your voice.” Kia says the “breakthrough user interface,” co-developed with Microsoft Corp. and based on Windows Embedded Auto software, provides simple and quick access to the vehicle’s multimedia and infotainment systems.

Drivers can use voice commands to manage music files from a variety of media sources, make and receive phone calls and respond to short message service text messages.

“The system will send an SMS text message and will allow you to reply to that message using pre-programmed messages,” says Michael Sprague, vice president-marketing for Kia Motors America. “So you could reply back, ‘Can’t talk now; driving to work.’”

Like many audio systems today, UVO recognizes MP3 players and music loaded on USB memory sticks. The system also has a 1GB hard-drive “Jukebox” function that allows up to 250 songs from those devices to be downloaded virtually for easy access anytime, even when those devices are not in the vehicle.

Music from CDs also can be downloaded to the system through the in-dash CD player. “So from a safety standpoint, you don’t have to worry about someone breaking in and taking your iPod, because the music’s now stored virtually in the vehicle,” Sprague says.

Kia also is proud songs can be accessed easily by the artist’s name.

“As you’re driving down the road, two hands on the wheel, looking forward doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you can say, ‘Play Led Zeppelin,’ and it scans the Jukebox, it scans the USB, it scans the iPod and starts playing Led Zeppelin,” he says.

“If you have more than one song, it will ask you which one do you want to play.”

Kia is promoting UVO as the most advanced voice-recognition system in the industry, but Ford Motor Co. already is in production with the third generation of its similar Sync technology, also done in partnership with Microsoft.

Sprague says Kia’s approach allows for more seamless integration with the vehicle. “If you compare it to our competitors down the hall, we’ve flattened out the command structure. Now you can just say, ‘Play Led Zeppelin,’” rather than getting into an extended dialogue with the computer.

The system also makes for safer retrieval of phone and voice messages. “Cruising down the road, you feel that little vibration in your pocket – ‘Oh, got a message,’ and up pops this little message,” Sprague says. “You say, ‘Read SMS text,’ and it’ll read it to you.”

Also integrated in the 4.3-in. (11-cm) display screen is a rear backup camera that shows a view behind the vehicle when the transmission is shifted into reverse.

Upgrades to the system will be available, and Kia now is considering ways to deliver those to consumers. “It could either be through the dealer channel, or we’ll send consumers to a website where they can download the software on a USB (stick),” Sprague says.

“USBs are standard on most of our products. Just plug it in. The software will upload and you’ll have the latest and greatest.”

Sprague sees the UVO system as a huge step forward for safely accessing entertainment and information. The system was on display at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and also at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“We can’t control what consumers are bringing into the vehicles, but we can control how they access that information in a safe way,” he says. “Let’s keep people focused on the road by using a technology like this.”

Kia has yet disclosed the retail price of the UVO system. Ford’s Sync is available throughout much of its lineup for $395.

– with Christie Schweinsberg