On The Road In Orlando: My Wild Ride With Sven

Except for the special antenna poking out near the trunk, the white 1992 Oldsmobile Toronado waiting at Orlando International Airport looked like an ordinary car. But on the dashboard was a computer screen. It was my link to TravTek, a system that guides drivers to any business or residential address in a 1,200-square-mile area of central Florida. After a 15-minute demonstration from an Avis representative, I was off for an eight-hour, 200-mile spin that was both dazzling and disappointing.

Avis Inc. has placed 75 cars in a $12 million, yearlong test. The sponsors include GM, the Federal Highway Administration, the Automobile Association of America, the Florida Transportation Dept., and the city of Orlando, which was chosen because it's the No. 1 U.S. tourist destination.

Say you know the name of your hotel--but that's all. Press a button labeled "Navig" near the screen. Up comes a four-item menu: Services"/Attractions, Map of Local Area, Emergency, and Instructions. Pressing the arrow for "Services"/Attractions" yields that category's directory, mainly from Orlando's yellow pages. Enter your destination, and in one minute TravTek plots a course. A purple line shows the start of the route, and a white arrow gives your location. The map changes as the car moves. Or you can get written directions. The system relies on several technologies, including NASA's string of global positioning satellites, sensors placed at 400 intersections throughout central Florida, computers, and video cameras.

FLEA WORLD. I didn't bother with Walt Disney World or Sea World, two well-known spots. I went for Flea World, the self-proclaimed world's largest outdoor flea market, 35 miles north of the airport. As I drove, a computerized male voice with a Scandinavian accent (dubbed "Sven" by the engineers) advised me. "In 9"/10ths miles, drive through the intersection onto State Road 436," Sven said.

Then he got confused. Heavy traffic should appear as yellow dots on the screen or as a written warning. But just before I reached a three-mile backup, Sven said: "No traffic problems to report." When he told me to "turn right onto U.S. Highway 17-92," I had 10 yards to change lanes and make the turn. Then he said: "Destination ahead in 9 miles." Wrong again: In 6.8 miles, I passed Flea World. Sven halted me at the parking lot of an auto parts store 2.2 miles further on. "Route guidance complete," he said. "You are within the vicinity of your destination."

From the car, I called the AAA's 24-hour TravTek Help Desk. I was told there might be a mistake in the computer's data base. Before heading off again, I corrected the car's location by entering into the computer the address of the auto parts store.

This time, I aimed for a Thai"/Vietnamese restaurant in the suburb of Winter Park. This 16-mile trip was nearly flawless. TravTek gave me plenty of notice of turns and correctly told me: "Traffic is moderately congested on Interstate 4 East." Next, I picked a residential address from the phone book. It was 35 miles away. Perfect again. I drove through strange neighborhoods at night as if I had been there a thousand times.

For one last test, I tried the Elvis Presley Museum. It's on U.S. Highway 192, also known as Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway. The computer had no listing for the museum, which isn't in the yellow pages. The address didn't work, either: The street was misspelled in TravTek's data base. Sorry, Elvis--maybe another time.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.