Driving to a Different Beat

Computers on wheels - 'on the road' becomes 'in the office.'

Jack Kerouac defined his generation. Bill Gates is shaping mine.

Maybe that is why, instead of hitting the road, I'm sitting in an Infiniti, parked in the middle of a convention center.

Of course, this is no ordinary Infiniti. Equipped with the new system from Bill's company, Microsoft, it's the latest thing in driving. And one of Bill's employees (also named Bill) is only too happy to show off all the great features of the AutoPC as I slide into the car, on display here at the recent Winter Consumer Electronics Show.

"Start," Bill says to the tiny microphone next to the rearview mirror.

"Radio," the car says back.

"Next," says Bill.

"Disc player."

"Next."

"Address book."

Address book? In a car?

Well, yes. That's the point of the AutoPC. Much more than the traditional radio/CD player in the dashboard, the system will store

all your contacts, dial the phone for you, even give weather updates and news headlines. This is the '90s, after all, and

cars are no longer symbols of freedom; they're mini-offices.

"Our vision is that you can stay connected but do it in a safe manner and keep your hands on the steering wheel and your eyes on the road," says Jim Minarik, president of Clarion Sales Corp. in Gardena, Calif.

It's Clarion's new unit that Microsoft is displaying here. In April, Clarion plans to start shipping limited quantities of it, which should hit store shelves in volume by summer.

Special add-ons let you get spoken directions to sites in specific cities (through satellite signals that determine your exact location). Tuned to a special FM radio network, it reads traffic alerts out loud and even the subject and first two lines of forwarded e-mail.

It's "a computer on wheels," Mr. Minarik explains.

The computer on wheels won't come cheap. Clarion's base unit - radio, CD player, and address book - will retail for $1,300. A unit with all the bells and whistles, such as the global positioning system, will cost somewhere around $2,400. Clearly not for the discount-muffler crowd.

Not everyone is ready to sign on to Microsoft's plan. "It's not the standard," says an executive with Pioneer Electronics.

Indeed, other manufacturers including Pioneer offer various pieces of the system. Microsoft stands out for seeking to build an auto computing platform on which others can add components.

Vetronix Corp., for example, has a module it hopes to sell to car buffs.

The Santa Barbara, Calif., company already makes diagnostic systems for car mechanics. Now, it plans to sell an interface that lets drivers test their vehicles themselves.

For example, if the "engine" light goes on in today's cars, drivers have no idea if it's a minor problem that can be dealt with during scheduled maintenance or a serious malfunction that requires immediate attention.

Vetronix's AutoConnect system lets drivers know how serious the problem is and other details, such as the amount of brake wear and when maintenance service is due. With some cars, AutoConnect lets users lock the doors or adjust the temperature - just by speaking the proper commands.

Also "we could record how that vehicle was driven," says Dave Breuer, business-unit manager for Vetronix. Parents could know how fast their children had driven. Rental-car companies could check up on their customers.

Voice commands remain a challenge in a noisy environment like a car. With the windows closed, the Infiniti's system responds well. But open the windows to the noise of the convention floor and it's a different story. Bill has to bark "Navigate!" several times to call up the satellite-based navigation system.

The reason for voice-recognition technology is safety. Federal studies distraction by cell phones and other in-car technology could be a factor in up to half of all crashes.

My wife would ground me if she knew how many times I've perched my notebook computer on the front seat and looked something up while doing 65 on the Interstate.

By using their voices, drivers can keep their eyes on the road.

That's progress, I suppose.

When I was growing up and all telephones had wires, cars were the means to get away from the familiar. Maybe we weren't the Beat generation. But at least we heard that beat, thumping on the far horizon.

Today, it's different. "Yeah, people want to get away from it all," says Perry Lee, the product manager responsible for Microsoft's AutoPC platform. "But they still carry their cell phones to go hiking."

Come back, Jack Kerouac. I miss you.

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