Cab firm books speech recognition system

Callers to Auckland's Co-op Taxis will soon be ordering cabs directly through a computer.

Callers to Auckland's Co-op Taxis will soon be ordering cabs directly through a computer.

Co-op Taxis has nearly completed installing a natural language speech recognition booking system from Australian company VeCommerce. While customers can still opt to talk to a human a human dispatcher, most people ordering cabs will speak directly to the computer system when the system goes live in the next few weeks.

VeCommerce managing director Paul Magee claims the VeCab system has a 95% accuracy rate in understanding people regardless of accent, even those who are whispering, in noisy environments such as pubs, restaurants or offices, or who are slurring because they’ve had a few too many drinks. Only heavy varieties of Russian and Scottish accents have flummoxed the system so far.

VeCab is loaded with as many words, phrases and ways of saying things such as “I want to order a taxi” as possible. The Queensland TAB's VeCommerce system allows 245 trillion different ways of placing a bet, says Magee. VeCab is also used by Regent Taxis on Australia’s Gold Coast.

The Auckland Co-op installation has taken six months, much of it taken up with loading and ensuring recognition of local place names, especially Maori words.

When a customer calls, the system makes sense of each customer response through a voice operating system by US company Nuance, which sits on a Compaq server. This is integrated with VeCommerce's First Contact system (also on a Compaq server), which ensures resulting transactions are updated by the core business system and database. The computer system interfaces with the telephony system through a PCI card by UK company Aculab. The entire solution is sold as VeCab.

Most of the research and development for VeCommerce's First Contact server is done in Auckland, where the company has 20 software engineers. The Kiwi connection dates back to December 1997, when VeCommerce acquired New Zealand company VoiceLink.

Auckland Co-op’s 75 call centre staff handle about 250,000 calls a month, which includes calls for several other taxi companies. The company has been around since 1947 and operates 700 vehicles. Company chairman Robert van Heiningen says the benefits of VeCab include no queuing for the customer, no push button menus and the ability to handle busy periods more effectively.

Magee says a natural language voice system usually provides a return on investment within eight to 12 months, mostly based on reducing the number of people required to handle routine transactions and inquiries.

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