You Too Can Talk to Your Car

Are you one of those lost drivers who refuses to ask for directions? Now you have no excuse — as long as you’re driving one of the latest Hondas rolling into showrooms.

The car maker, along with IBM, is rolling out an in-car speech navigation system that features more than 700 voice commands and more than 1.7 million street and city names, IBM officials said. Honda will roll out the systems in its 2005 Acura RL and as options on both the 2005 Acura MDX and 2005 Honda Odyssey in the United States and Canada beginning this month.

With these voice recognition systems, you might say cars have become the ultimate mobile device; they truly can communicate with drivers.

The natural language recognition features are the result of hundreds of hours of speech recordings, which produced hundreds of additional recordings to design a customized, natural-sounding text-to-speech voice, IBM officials said.

Plus, the GPS-enabled system in the car can also search a database of nationwide dining information and provide drivers and their passengers the ability to find restaurant information by name.

“With the Zagat dining guide database integrated with the navigation system, you can say, ‘Take me to a three-star Chinese restaurant,’ and the car knows where you are,” said Alisdair Rennie, a vice president in IBM’s Pervasive Computing division. “It’s also integrated with the car’s audio system, so the driving instructions come over the speakers.”

Flip on the CD player? No need. You can speak the command to the dashboard — and tell it to turn down the air conditioning while it’s at it.

Called embedded ViaVoice, the technology places Honda as the first car manufacturer to equip its cars with the voice-recognized speech navigation systems. The new models are being unveiled at the Auto Tech show that kicked off in Detroit Wednesday.

In addition to its speech recognition capabilities, the 2005 Acura RL comes equipped with the first real-time traffic navigation system in the United States, which integrates real-time traffic data into the navigation display.

Rennie said much of the collaboration work between IBM and Honda focused on filtering out extra noise so the system could interpret the language commands.

Other integrated features include AcuraLink, a system that communicates information between dealers and drivers. The cars also feature HandsFreeLink, a BlueTooth technology used to synchronize cell-phone data with the car.

As for upgrading the software embedded in the car system, Rennie said it’s highly unlikely owners would have to do that on their own. “The trick in the automotive world is that is has to be server managed,” he said. For example, the car could be driven to the dealer where, using a Wi-Fi hotspot, the software could be upgraded without any intervention from the driver. “We’re already starting to see that concept from manufacturers.”

After all, he added, no one is going to spend a weekend upgrading the software in their car.

Especially not if you can tell the car to do it for you.

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