Toyota Motor Corp.’s new Lexus RX cross/utility vehicle debuting next year will be the first in the U.S. to offer casual-speech software with its voice-recognition navigation system, sources tell Ward’s.

The casual-speech system is different from other voice-recognition technologies on the market because it does not require users to memorize canned phrases to activate certain functions.

The system in the RX is expected to be provided by Toyota’s long-time navigation supplier, Denso Corp. Ward’s is told the system’s software will be supplied to Denso by Voice Box Technologies Inc. of Bellevue, WA.

On its website, Voice Box bills its Conversational Voice Search software as “empowering people to search and navigate content and services from any (instrument panel) device or network by simply using natural, free-form language.” It lists Toyota as a partner, along with IBM Corp. and XM Satellite Radio.

Mike Marshall, director-automotive emerging technologies for J.D. Power & Associates, considers the introduction of a casual-speech system an important step in increasing the usability of in-vehicle voice-recognition technology.

Marshall, who oversees J.D. Power’s annual navigation-system study, also expects the new software to increase user satisfaction, noting current in-vehicle voice-recognition systems often get low marks because of their inability to understand what is being said.

Unlike other voice-recognition software, which tries to understand every word spoken by the user to activate a particular function, Marshall says casual-speech works by picking up key words or phrases.

Meanwhile, Toyota’s all-new Venza CUV will debut Denso’s vastly improved sixth-generation navigation system, minus the casual-speech software. The auto maker, for the time being, wants to reserve the new technology for its premium Lexus lineup, Ward’s is told.

In detailing the new system, John Lum, senior manager-sales for Denso International America Inc.’s California office, admits the sheer number of memorized commands needed to operate Denso’s previous-generation voice-activated navigation system was overwhelming and often resulted in erroneous understanding.

“If you press the talk button, it just says, 'Please say command,’” he explains. “It’s listening for one out of hundreds of commands.”

To counter this, Denso’s latest navigation system is designed with a new voice engine that improves recognition capability. It also offers a more user-friendly indexing of voice commands.

“As soon as you press the talk button, it breaks it down into menus, (including) the audio system, navigation, phone system; and from there you can dial further,” Lum says.

Another new feature is “automatic complete,” which saves a user from having to precisely spell out a word or phrase when searching for a point-of-interest or inputting an address. This comes in handy if the user is not sure how to spell a tricky name.

For example, Denso’s new system will find all spellings of Walmart, including the company’s use of a star symbol and hyphenated versions. “Gen 6 will find all of it,” Lum says. “It has that type of fuzzy logic.”

French- and Spanish-language recognition also is new.

Additionally, Denso has reduced the number of steps necessary for a driver to pair his phone with the Bluetooth wireless system. “It’s one step,” Lum says.

“Once connected to a compatible phone, it will download all your contact information and automatically voice-enable all of your contacts for easy dialing by voice.”

However, each phone works differently, and a single transfer protocol, which the auto industry is working to develop, is something that is needed, he says.

Bluetooth Audio is new for Denso’s latest navigation system, as well, allowing users to wirelessly connect their Bluetooth-compatible MP3 player and control play and pause functions through the vehicle’s head unit.

However, Apple Inc., which leads the portable MP3-player market with its iPod, doesn’t yet support Bluetooth Audio, Lum says, requiring iPod owners to buy an aftermarket adapter if they want to wirelessly stream their songs in their vehicle.

Toyota appointed an engineer from its Ann Arbor technical center specifically to work on improving the human-machine interface of Denso’s newest navigation system, Lum says.

Focus groups also were conducted to determine how best to improve system controls. Participant responses led Denso to change “everything” in its shift to the sixth-generation system. This included revising the menu structure and many of the hard buttons, Lum says.

Denso’s original navigation system for Toyota debuted in the '98 Lexus LS and GS models. The supplier will roll out its Gen 6 system as a running change to the Camry lineup and as part of the coming mid-cycle change to the Avalon large sedan.

The Avalon, Lum notes, still uses Denso’s third-generation navigation system due to a lack of engineering resources available when the car was last redesigned as an ’05 model.

J.D. Power, which last week released the results of its 2008 Navigation Usage and Satisfaction Study, shows Denso’s system in the Lexus IS 250/350 placing fifth, earning 776 points on a 1,000-point scale. However, some other Denso systems provided for Lexus and other models fell further down the list.

Mitsubishi Electric Corp.’s navigation system in the Mitsubishi Lancer placed first, the first time a factory-installed system in a non-premium vehicle has ranked No.1.

A navigation system is only as good as the specifications an OEM provides, Marshall says, but Denso’s system in the IS has ranked in the study’s top 10 the last three years. “(Denso’s) highest (rated) factor was appearance, and (the) next highest factor was the display screen.”

J.D. Power ranks display screens on their clarity for both day and night, map-zoom function, screen size, screen location, geographic coverage area and screen resolution.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com