Eyes On The Road, Mind On The E Mail

Cadillac offers multitasking drivers a mobile office and entertainment system

Attention, road warriors. There's a powerful new tool on the horizon. A word from you, and it will tune in your favorite radio station or play your favorite CD. It has a navigation system to guide you where you need to go. It will take dictation, storing your words on a Compact Flash memory card. It will allow you to download your e-mail to be read on a color screen or beamed into your handheld computer. It will even read your e-mail to you while you keep your eyes on the road.

This marvel, called infotainment radio, will make its debut as an option on General Motors' Cadillac DeVille and Seville models this fall. And it's pretty slick, as I discovered when I drove around Colorado Springs earlier this month in a Seville equipped with a prototype. Cadillac still has to fix the price, but says infotainment radio is likely to cost the same as the navigation systems in current models. These run about $2,000. To get e-mail, you'll also have to pay an as yet undetermined subscription fee and airtime charges.

SPOKEN COMMANDS. The system was a snap to program. To get e-mail, I punched in the user name and password for my EarthLink account on the keypad, along with the access phone number and Web address of EarthLink's mail server. I pressed a button on the console, and the system dialed up my e-mail provider, retrieved my mail, and displayed the subject lines as a list on the screen. In the final version, the buttons won't work when the car is moving--the system will accept only spoken commands. The screen won't show any text, either, so you're not tempted to read your e-mail while you're driving.

I went through the messages, saying "next" to move to each new header, "read" to hear it, and then "select" and "read" to listen to the body of the message. There was an advisory from Delta Airlines about its bargain fares, a note from a friend, and Nissan's monthly sales report, which made my companion, an engineer for the system, squirm: Nissan's March numbers rose more than Cadillac's.

In the final version, you'll be able to respond to your e-mail with preset text messages, such as "I'll call you when I get to the office." Or you can use the voice-memo system to record a response, which is attached as a sound file to your e-mail reply. It will play on almost any computer with a sound card and speakers.

FEMALE VOICE. The messages are read using a text-to-speech processor in the car. While still a bit distorted, the voice--female--is one of the most natural I've ever heard. To alert the system that you're about to issue a command, you push a button on the steering wheel with your left thumb. The audio hushes for the five seconds or so that you have to speak. You can also set the system to listen continuously for a spoken, preset wake-up command. If you're at a loss for words, simply ask: "What can I say?" The system responds with a list of commands for different radio tasks, such as "station," "preset," "scan," and "seek." You switch between functions by saying "radio," "navigator," "phone," or "CD player."

When it comes to market, infotainment radio will be one of the most confusingly priced options ever installed on a car. To get it, you'll need to have the OnStar system, GM's safety and security service that connects you to a live person at the touch of a button. OnStar's hardware is standard in Cadillacs, but the service costs $199 a year.

In addition, if you want to use the e-mail function, you'll need to pay for Onstar's Personal Calling and Virtual Advisor services, to be launched this summer. Personal Calling is a hands-free cell-phone service that will be sold as packages of prepaid minutes, while Virtual Advisor is an Internet news and information service. It lets you specify areas of interest, such as sports teams and companies, on a personal Web page and then reads you scores and stock quotes when you're in the car. It will be sold via annual subscription, and get this: It can read you your e-mail, too. While OnStar stores your e-mail on a central server and reads it to you over a built-in cellular link, infotainment radio downloads your mail and reads it to you from the dashboard. That way, there's no disruption if the cell service drops your call.

Despite the complicated pricing, I'll bet that infotainment radio will be a hit. The alternatives for e-mail in the car are voice-mail and e-mail messaging services with voice recognition from such companies as Webley Systems and General Magic, which you dial up via a cell phone. They can be frightfully expensive, to the tune of thousands of dollars a year. Aftermarket radio maker Clarion, meanwhile, is revamping its Auto PC system, which is similar to GM's. But it runs more than $2,000 and must be professionally installed after you buy the car.

Road warriors have already become adept at multitasking, even if this means having a laptop on their knees and a cell phone in their hands while searching for the right exit on the freeway. Cadillac just came up with a way to allow them to juggle it all a bit more efficiently--and safely.