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Intelligent Conversation -- with Your Car

By Steve Hamm A talking computer called "Hal" helped create a chilling vision of a computer-controlled future in Stanley Kubrick's classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hal took control of the space ship from what he saw as incompetent humans. Well, Hal has finally arrived in the real world -- and he's really a nice person.

American Honda Motor (HMC), with a lot of help from IBM (IBM), is set to introduce the most advanced voice-navigation system ever: an on-board computer that responds to voice questions and commands just about instantly with a friendly spoken response. The system will be standard equipment on the 2005 model of Acura RL sedan, coming out in October, and optional on Acura MDX sport-utility and Honda Odyssey minivan, which both arrive in September.

Honda's move shows how rapidly digital technology is transforming the auto industry's landscape. Manufacturers are tapping into the latest innovations in an attempt to differentiate their vehicles from the rest of the pack. "We're at the beginning edge," says analyst Thilo Koslowski of Gartner Group. "The car is becoming an extension of your personal network. It helps you get where you want to go and to communicate along the way."

BEYOND NAVIGATION. Honda already had the most advanced voice-controlled navigation system on the market, but the new version, announced Sept. 1, introduces a slew of improvements. They include the ability to process natural-language commands and questions, and giving people voice responses rather than requiring them to look at a computer screen.

Once a person asks for directions to an address, the computer reads them out loud. If the driver wants to know about stores or restaurants near a location, the computer lists them. It even reads reviews from Zagat's restaurant guide. The computer responds to 700 types of commands and holds a database of 1.2 million city and street names.

For Honda, voice commands go way beyond navigation. You can also use them to control the audio system and air conditioning. And if you tell the computer a phone number, it will look it up in a reverse directory and give you the address. Using a separate voice-recognition system, a driver can use his cell phone hands-free.

"UNDER CONTROL." The new system required some advanced engineering. Scientists from IBM Research tinkered with algorithms to make it possible to respond to commands without having to be trained to recognize a particular person's voice. Also, they made the system powerful enough to understand unusual regional pronunciations.

While it's whip-smart, there's no danger the computer will take over and direct you to a place you don't want to go. "We finally have Hal, but we have Hal under control," says Jim Ruthven, program director for IBM Telematics Solutions.

This is just the start of the automotive digital revolution. Carmakers and their technology partners are working on wireless systems that diagnose problems in cars without having to bring them into the repair shop and which monitor vehicle performance so quality and durability can be improved in future models.

NIGHTIME UPGRADES? Honda later this year will introduce a system for broadcasting tips on how people can to get more out of their cars. In the future, it foresees being able to download new software capabilities wirelessly. "You can see a future where while you're sleeping we're upgrading the software in your car," says Robert Bienenfeld, senior manager for product planning at American Honda.

Maybe some of the info-tech giants will pick up some useful tips about handling seamless software upgrades from their auto maker brethren. Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York

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