DETROIT – Connectivity, voice recognition, neural networks, the importance of “unpairing” a Bluetooth-linked phone and the future of autonomous vehicles were among the high-tech topics discussed by automakers at the Executive Visionaries panel at this week’s SAE 2014 Convergence.

“Is anyone else completely thrilled when you see a car park itself in a space that is barely longer than the car?” asks Kent Helfrick, vice president and chief technology officer of Flextronics.

As an engineer, he appreciates “the technology and the control balancing and competing imperatives that have to be matched (for self-parking cars). Every time I think about that and see it I think, ‘Oh my gosh.’ And that’s just the beginning of these autonomous actions.”

The 3-day conference dedicated to automotive electronics, held at the refurbished Cobo Center here, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

Although voice recognition has improved to the point it can reduce driver distraction in vehicles today, Ford’s Jim Buczkowski says the industry needs to look to next-generation technologies that are more intelligent and may require input from other industries.

“We are at a very early stage, but ultimately what we want to understand in the voice interface is, what the consumer means. Actually what they say is not really important. What they mean is what’s really important,” says Buczkowski, Ford’s director-electrical and electronics systems/research and innovation.

He says technology today allows sounds to be changed into sentences, which then are interpreted against an index of commands.

“But in the future, to really connect with customers, to create a great experience, we just have to get to the technologies that are commonly referred to as neural networks,” which are computational models designed to function like the brain, an artificial intelligence.

“The key to creating those great experiences using voice recognition in the future is to get to that stage of understanding,” Buczkowski says.

Although voice-recognition systems remain relatively new, Harald Kroeger, vice president-electrical/electronics and electric drive at Mercedes-Benz, finds them fairly capable.

“I wish my kids would hear my words as well as my system does in my car,” he says.

Still, he realizes the consumer-electronics industry moves much more quickly than automotive, and companies such as Google and Apple have delivered successful technologies that represent a challenge for automakers.

“If you look at the power of Siri and the stuff you can do with Google, right now, if we’re honest, systems that are in the car have fallen behind those standards clearly, and that’s clear in the feedback we get from J.D. Power (research). Everyone who does the survey complains about that,” Kroeger says.

To remain relevant, he says automakers at least must match the performance of voice-recognition systems in cars with those of hand-held devices for consumers.

“Anything that falls short of that experience that they have with their device in their hand will be branded as insufficient,” he says.

Alan Amici, director-global UConnect for Fiat-Chrysler, urges the auto industry to leverage the arrival of near-field communication, which is a form of short-range wireless communication incorporated in the new iPhone 6. In vehicles, he says the technology can simplify phone pairing.

“We don’t seem to execute phone pairing very well – at least some people have difficulty with that,” Amici says. “It also makes transfer of information from your handset to your car much easier. It can do some anticipatory things that fit the driver’s expectations a little better than Bluetooth.”

Ford’s Buczkowski took the opportunity to remind the crowd to unpair their Bluetooth-linked phones when exiting a vehicle.

With NFC, “we can now add things like unpairing, which is something that we really, really want to promote people to do, especially if you’re driving rental cars and so on,” he says. “You don’t want to leave any of your identity in the vehicle. Often today, we’re so quick to get out of the vehicle, we don’t do that.”

With or without NFC, Amici says unpairing a phone must be made a lot simpler than it is today. “Now in automotive, you have to go three screens deep to unpair, which frankly is not going to happen,” he says. “It’s not interesting. Nobody wants to do it. It needs to be natural and a part of your life, a part of the user experience.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com