Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, September 9, 2004






By Niloy

Cars are doing crazy things nowadays. They can go up mountains, swim lakes and rivers and even fly! Not to mention they can race at nerve-cracking speeds. So when that piece of shiny metal with four wheels (a car, that is) does all the things that's not out-of-place in a sci-fi story, it should have some verbal skills too. Well, that's coming too.

The geographically challenged need no longer feel shame. Men (and women) who lose their way will be able to safely ask for directions without having to stop (gasp) at a gas station. Honda will soon become the first auto manufacturer to include, as standard equipment in some models, technology that enables drivers to converse with their cars about where to go and how to get there.

Using voice-recognition and text-to-speech technology from IBM, the 2005 Acura RL, available in October, and Honda Odyssey, available in September, will produce maps and "speak" turn-by-turn directions from the navigation system. Drivers will also be able to make phone calls or crank up the air conditioning, all while keeping their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel.

IBM's Embedded ViaVoice technology uses a single processor similar to those used in handheld computers to recognize voice commands and verbalize directions. This is IBM's first product that reads out complete turn-by-turn directions including street names, such as "turn right on Fourth Street, then left on King Street."

The audio directions are produced using female voice recordings divided into phonetic sounds that are merged into natural-sounding words. The voice-recognition system was designed to work in the presence of ambient sounds such as air conditioning or a racing engine. The system also takes into account regional differences in speech patterns, so it will be able to recognize and understand different accents. The vehicles will recognize 700 voice commands and can recognize and reply to 1.7 million street and city names from across North America.

Honda is the first company to work with IBM on integrating the technology into a navigation system, but other deals may also follow. The company did extensive testing with Honda to make sure the system is reliable. "We don't want to be the ones that make you have to pull off the side of the road to restart your car to reboot the computer," commented a spokesperson on their website.

Those who loves to eat may appreciate the vehicles' inclusion of Zagat Survey restaurant guides. Hungry drivers can ask for the closest Italian restaurant and receive directions and a review of the eatery.

The 2005 Acura RL also includes a real-time traffic navigation system that highlights congested roads on the screen.

These Honda vehicles are the first to integrate text-to-speech into a navigation system. By eliminating the need for accessing a touch screen or keypad to look for a destination, Honda is allowing people to focus on driving. All these end up to be more safer and more elegant solution than most other touch-screen based navigation systems.

Integrated voice recognition and navigation will likely be mostly limited to high-end vehicles for the next few years since they can cost up to $2,000 to install. Although this seems to be quite expensive, navigation systems are slowly becoming cheaper and cheaper.

So far, the number of consumers who choose manually operated navigation systems has been low because of the complexity of using the systems. People don't want to spend $2,000 for something that is hard to use. However, the voice-activated controls for navigation or phone dialling have a clear advantage… its easier to use and, well, the driver can do his driving and is not needed to pause and tap the touch-screen of a navigation system. It would keep them focused on the road.





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