All that time you spend in your car? Think of how productive you'd be if you could get work done while driving. Of course, for safety reasons the federal government is not about to let any of us use a smartphone, let alone a laptop, while en route to work.

But that doesn't mean your commute couldn't get a little bit more productive.

Speech technology could help you stay connected to the office. However, you can't yet speak simple commands like "I'm running late for work, let my boss know." But maybe sometime soon.

What's Possible Now

Now, a new natural language speech technology is included in the 2013 Cadillac XTS--and it doesn't limit drivers to only a small set of commands. Tim Grost, an interaction designer at GM, worked on the Cadillac CUE (Cadillac User Experience) dashboard system in the XTS. He says drivers can say simple sentences like "Find me a POI (place of interest) for dinner," and the car will understand you are looking for restaurants and list options in on the LCD screen.

He says one key to good speech tech in the car, given the nature of the environment, is for the system to repeat back to the driver what was intended. Still, one challenge is to design a car that is "always listening" to the driver, and that technology is still a ways off. It requires faster processing to root out background noises and casual conversations.

He says speech interfaces today work well within a known scope--e.g., when you initiate the navigation by pressing a button. Still, speech technology in cars has improved recently, mostly thanks to improved on-board computer processing.

Wayne Killen, an Audi Product Manager, says the typical vehicle will store thousands of terms in the car computer, and cloud computing can provide an infinite language library. He says, to perform a Web search in an Audi A6 to find a concert or coffee shop, the car first records what you say as a .WAV file and transmits it to a Google server in the cloud, which deciphers the command. The server transmits the command back to the car and communicates with the internal computer. (Audi claims to be the only vehicle manufacturer in the world that has this cloud-based speech processing.) Killen says, simple speech commands like Facebook status updates could also work.

What the Future Looks Like

Thilo Koslowski, an automotive analyst with Gartner, says speech technology in the car is a classic interoperability issue for IT. Speech technology has to improve, but so do the car applications, location-awareness, and data formats and exchanges. In the case of letting a boss know you are late for work, he says the cloud could track the driver's location, meeting schedule, and your time of arrival. In some ways, spoken commands would not even be necessary--the car could text for you on the fly.

Interestingly, one of the keys to improving speech in the car has nothing to do with voice recognition technology at all. As car manufacturing improves, the interior cabin reduces noise, and the car can "listen" to what you say without having to work as hard to remove background noise. That means finally dictating a memo to your staff.

"The bar for intuitive machine interactions has been raised by Google and Apple and consumer expectations have risen as well. Automakers will have to meet these new expectations and automotive companies will want to leverage these technologies in the automobile," says Koslowski.

The good news in the midst of the debate about distracted driving, speech may not be the only tech that will help us check email on a commute. Autonomous driving is now legal in California and Nevada, and companies like Ford (with their Traffic Jam Assist) and Cadillac (with something called Super Cruise) are helping pave the way. These upcoming advancements let you take your hands off the wheel for short stretches; soon, the car will do all the driving. Just ask Google: It has tested self-driving cars for 300,000 miles already.

Now if they can just make a car that brews coffee.