The Office You Can Drive

Car PCs will take dictation, send E-mail, and plan your route

Legions of traveling execs and salespeople, already armed with laptops, palmtops, and cell phones, are about to get a new gadget that gives new meaning to the term "road warrior"--a personal computer for their cars. It won't need a keyboard because it responds to voice commands. So you can use it without taking your eyes off the road.

Cars have long contained many microcomputers. But these chips churn away invisibly under the hood, behind the dashboard, inside the stereo. While the new car PCs can't handle spreadsheets, they can read your E-mail to you on the way to work, then translate your spoken reply into text and send it off. The road PCs can also use your address book to dial a contact when you tell it to, then help you find your way to that person's office.

The first such system, from Japan's Clarion Co., will hit the market in April. For $1,299, you'll get not only the usual AM/FM stereo and CD player but also a system that responds to voice commands and talks back. To link its built-in address book to a cell phone for voice-activated calls, you'll have to spend an extra $150. Other options include pager alerts and a Global Positioning System (GPS) for pinpoint navigation (table). Buying them all will jack the price up to $2,250.

CHIP POWER. Still, it's a bargain. "That's essentially the price of either a high-end sound system or a stand-alone GPS," says Robert A. Enderle, a computer analyst at Giga Information Group in Santa Clara, Calif. Clarion can offer both, he adds, because "the peripherals leverage the power of the chip in the PC."

Carmakers and Clarion's rivals aren't far behind. In February, Nissan Motor Co.'s Infiniti unit will show off a concept car at the Chicago Auto Show. Its PC will add a TV and a video-game player for back-seat passengers. Ford Motor Co. will start installing PCs later this year. "It's a huge opportunity to make people more productive," says Michael J. Maloney, director of multimedia business at Ford's Visteon Automotive Systems in Dearborn, Mich. "It will eventually be in all but the cheapest cars."

The key to the low prices is an open standard, called Auto PC. In the past, if you bought a factory-installed sound system from Ford, you couldn't later add an aftermarket CD changer from Clarion--everything had to come from the same manufacturer. Now, all equipment that complies with Auto PC will work. It is a version of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE software.

At first, Microsoft was reluctant to participate. Two years ago, "they weren't really interested," says James E. Minarik, president of Clarion Sales Corp. in Gardena, Calif. But "all of a sudden," says Ford's Maloney, "Microsoft had a change in strategic direction."

Microsoft now seems to be trying to make up for lost time. It has forged alliances with more than a dozen auto makers and parts suppliers. "One of our visions is to take devices you know and love and make them better, and in the U.S., there's nothing that people love more than their cars," says Kathryn Hinsch, Microsoft's marketing honcho for Windows CE.

Early Auto PC systems will have a limited menu of information that can be received over the airwaves, such as traffic alerts, stock quotes, and E-mail contained in encoded broadcast signals from various subscription services. But makers expect the wireless-information business to explode as air time over cellular and personal-communications services gets cheaper.

The car-audio market needs a boost, and manufacturers are hoping Auto PC will be it. Sales of aftermarket gear plateaued at $1.8 billion in 1996. Since then, booming demand for home computers has been siphoning off money once spent on electronic gadgets in cars. Now, car-stereo makers aim to tap into that market, too. Given America's love affair with cars, road PCs could well end up being more pervasive than home PCs.

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