LAS VEGAS, NEV. — DO you want to navigate?'' the disembodied voice asks.
``Do you want to start with a landmark?''
And so begins an unusual journey through the streets of Las Vegas, Nev. Instead of a map to guide him, driver Joe Gross is relying on the spoken instructions of an installed computer. It tells him where to turn and estimates the mileage from start to finish.
``You can truly tell it `L-O-S-T,' '' says Mr. Gross, a product specialist for Kenwood USA Corporation, and the computer will figure out the right route.
Kenwood, headquartered in Long Beach, Calif., is one of at least five car-audio companies that will be selling such computerized navigation systems in the United States over the next few months.
The idea has been kicked around for years, and the technology has already been incorporated by some corporate fleets (Tracking systems, Page 9) and in Japan and Europe. But this marks the first time that computer navigation will be available to American consumers.
``If you do any kind of traveling, it's an excellent thing to have,'' says Chris Spencer, a product specialist at Alpine of Canada. The company says it expects to begin selling its first in-vehicle navigation systems in March.
Car-audio companies say they can successfully market these systems as add-ons to the high-end compact disk players they currently make for automobiles. The first generation of these products vary widely in price. Kenwood's navigator, including the sound system, will cost about $1,000 installed; an offering from Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc., in Long Beach, Calif., is about $3,000.
Most of the price difference has to do with technology. Pioneer's product uses satellites to track the vehicle and an in-vehicle display screen to show drivers where they are. Kenwood, as well as Alpine Electronics of America, in Torrance, Calif., Clarion Sales Corporation in Gardena, Calif., and a Fujitsu business unit in Torrance, Calif., have licensed voice-recognition technology from a small Monrovia, Calif., start-up company called Amerigon. Voice recognition means the on-board computer can understand key words and phrases spoken by the driver.
Pros and cons
Each technology has its advantages and drawbacks. The satellite-based navigator, called global positioning system, or GPS, gives drivers an up-to-the minute display of where they are. The on-board computer takes readings from at least three satellites. By calculating how long it takes to receive each signal, the computer can tell its location to within 100 meters (300 ft.) or less.
In addition, the system uses a CD-ROM chock-full of local information. For example, a driver can search out the closest Mexican or Italian restaurant or enter an address and pinpoint its location. Once it has charted the proper course, the computer gives the driver audible instructions when to turn and when the vehicle is approaching its destination.
The problem with GPS is the screen. States generally have laws banning the installation of in-car televisions that can be seen from the driver's seat. A handful of these statutes are written in such a way that they seem to preclude a computer display as well, says Michael Townsen, a senior marketing vice president at Pioneer.
But Pioneer is worried about its liability from an accident involving a car with an installed GPS. Thus, drivers can search the computer database only when the car is stopped and the parking brake is set.
In the case of voice-recognition technology, drivers never have to take their eyes off the road. To follow instructions, all the driver has to say is ``next,'' and the computer explains where the next turn is and how far to travel once the turn is made.
If drivers get lost or the recommended street is blocked, they can say ``lost'' or ``blocked'' and the computer will prompt them for the necessary information to get to the right place.
Ironing out the kinks
The problem with voice recognition is that it is still a young technology. Even in the best of circumstances, a computer can understand only a limited vocabulary, especially when it must interpret words no matter what the accent of the speaker.
Because of the unavoidable noise in a moving vehicle, the Amerigon technology has to be extra cautious. Drivers have to literally spell out their starting and ending points slowly so the computer can understand. During our journey, the prototype worked pretty well, even though the computer sometimes asked if we had said ``blocked'' when we had not. At one point, it took three times of spelling ``Bally'' before it understood that the driver meant the Las Vegas hotel instead of a Mexican restaurant with the name ``Pollo'' in it.
Once, the driver told the system that he was lost, and the computer prompted him for his location. By the time he had spelled out the two cross streets, he was already past the intersection.
In coming years, car-audio companies expect to improve their navigation systems and perhaps, one day, merge the advantages of GPS with those of voice-recognition technology. That might include downloading traffic reports so the computer could automatically reroute a driver whose usual commuter route was backed up, says Mark Epstein, marketing manager for Pioneer.