Further underscoring the important role voice commands will play inside future vehicles, natural-language processing company Nuance Communications opens a suburban Detroit user-experience research center to be nearer to key customers and build out expertise in areas such as artificial intelligence and car-to-home connectivity.

Burlington, MA-based Nuance says its Drive Lab will be an R&D hub tasked with developing technology that will provide drivers with safer, smarter and more satisfying user experiences on the path to AI-driven autonomous vehicles.

The user experience, or UX, comprises items ranging from advanced driver assistance systems to comfort and convenience and is seen widely as a key method for automakers to differentiate themselves from the competition and win new buyers, especially tech-savvy Millennials. Voice commands will underpin much of the functionality, so NLP expertise is hotly sought after by OEMs and their bigger suppliers.

At an industry conference earlier this year, General Motors Vice President and Chief Technical Officer Jon Laukner characterized improving voice-recognition systems as an area of automotive R&D in vital need of investment dollars.

“Every manufacturer, to a greater or lesser extent, has issues with voice recognition,” Laukner told the conference.

According to Nuance, the Drive Lab will study drivers’ preferences, in-car experiences and future automotive interactions. Key areas of planned research include an enhanced understanding of which experiences users want to bring into the car, such as smart-home capabilities; safety, privacy, functionality and regulatory requirements; new ideas for UX; best practices; and consulting.

The lab also will serve as a hub for collaboration with automakers and universities beyond new technologies and into safety risks such as distracted driving, the company says.

“Automotive technologies are changing rapidly, and innovations like autonomous vehicles and advanced shared mobility are closer to reality than we think, so it’s important that we put a strategic focus on research to provide a truly intelligent automotive assistant that users can trust, now and in the future,” says Bob Schassler, executive vice president and general manager-Mobile Div. at Nuance.

“Our Drive Lab will be the center for our research and testing around new concepts and prototypes for the next generation of automotive user experiences for our customers,” Schassler says in a statement.

The Drive Lab’s Farmington, MI, location will be joined in coming months by centers in Europe and Asia specializing in specific UX needs. Company officials do not put a dollar amount on the Michigan investment but say Nuance is hiring new employees for the site.

Earlier this month, Nuance revealed its Dragon Drive connected-car platform would power all conversational and connected services aboard the redesigned Audi A8. Dragon Drive, which appears on 180 million vehicles from a range of manufacturers across 40 languages, also will underpin conversational systems of future Audi models.

Automotive is the largest segment of the Mobile division at Nuance, which also serves industries such as telecommunications, financial services and health care.

jamend@wardsauto.com