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Nuance pushes into car market

Nuance Communications Inc., the Burlington company behind the technology that lets millions of people talk to their smartphones and computers, is making an even bigger push to bring its speech recognition capabilities into cars.

The company said Thursday that it would pay $80 million in cash to get a larger slice of the automotive market with the acquisition of Tweddle Connect, which makes it possible for Web apps such as the popular music streaming service Pandora to work in automotive computer systems.

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The acquisition will allow Nuance to insert its speech technology into Tweddle so drivers can use voice commands for the growing number of Web programs and mobile apps in use in cars.

“It’s an easy way to interact with cars, and lets you keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road,” said Mike Thompson, executive vice president and general manager of Nuance’s mobile technology division.

And gaining Tweddle also positions the company to be a significant player in the so-called connected car, said Thilo Koslowski, an automotive analyst at Gartner Inc., a research firm.

Automakers such as General Motors, BMW, Ford, and Toyota increasingly offer ways for their vehicles to connect directly to the Internet, allowing drivers to get e-mail or operate ­mobile apps through touchscreen control panels instead of fumbling with phones. By the end of the decade, Koslowski said, between 70 and 80 percent of all new cars will come equipped with technology to link them to the Internet.

The next step is to make those functions truly hands-free, with Nuance, Apple Inc., Google Inc., and other, smaller players vying to turn cars into “the ultimate connected mobile devices,” he said.

Nuance’s voice technology is ­already shipped in about 20 million cars a year, giving motorists the ability to make hands-free phone calls or adjust the temperature without touching the controls.

With Tweddle Connect, Nuance will expand the use of voice controls for drivers to interact with mobile apps, such as the restaurant reservation service OpenTable, or the search engine Bing, both of which are already installed in many models.

The fact that about half of all Americans are now carrying smartphones loaded with apps is driving the evolution of the connected car, said Thompson, the Nuance executive, and drivers need safer ways to interact with those devices.

Instead of pushing buttons on devices or car consoles to find a song from an Internet streaming service, he suggested a safer way would be to simply ask for it. “The driver’s need for safety and convenience is very clear,” Thompson said. “People do pick up their phones and look at their phones, and that’s just not the safe way to go.”

In recent years, Nuance has brought its voice technology into more mobile devices and even into some new TV sets. Indeed, the fastest growing part of the company, which is also heavily involved in medical transcription and call center automation, has been its mobile division. That part of the business grew 30 percent last year, garnering $508 million in revenue.

Nuance stock closed Thursday at $19.59 per share, up 1.19 percent, or 23 cents, from the previous day’s close.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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