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What the voice commands for tomorrow's cars should be

By / June 13, 2008



Dear Automobile Makers:

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I have some ideas for you to consider as you develop new accessories that will appeal to American consumers. No rush on this, either. In my family, we have a tradition of driving our cars until there's nothing left but a mass of steel, rubber, and upholstery all fused together in one big lump.

By sending along this message now, I'm giving you several years of lead time for research and development. My hope is that some if not all of these suggestions will become standard features by the time I need to replace my current vehicle.

For brevity's sake, I'm going to focus on the emerging science of biomechanical communication. Numerous commercials on TV these days show drivers giving verbal orders to their vehicles. They say, "play music!" or "call home!" and the car obeys.

To me this seems like the automotive equivalent of teaching your dog to fetch the morning paper. If technology has truly reached the point where human and machine can become nearly equal partners in the driving process, I've compiled a short list of useful commands that would make anyone's on-the-road experience much more enjoyable. For example:

•"Deal with that clown who's tailgating me!" This request could be programmed to activate a high-definition video screen that would pop up from the trunk and flash the words "BACK OFF" in a variety of colors and font styles.

•"Find out who got the steering wheel all sticky and left those candy wrappers in the back seat!" All this would require is a few well-placed surveillance minicams augmented with facial recognition software to identify the previous drivers and passengers.

Am I being unrealistic? Heck, NASA just sent the Phoenix Lander to Mars so it can dig around in the polar region. If science can produce a robotic gardening device that follows orders from 400 million miles away, it can surely give us cars that will comply with requests such as:

•"I want to know if that was a pothole or a rock we just ran over!"

•"How fast was I going when we passed the police radar van?"

•"Tell me if you think we can fit into that parking space."

•"Did I have my wallet with me when we left the house?"

A new era of happy motoring is just around the corner. The only drawback I foresee is that some drivers may need to be reminded that on-demand technology doesn't mean common courtesy is obsolete.

For that reason, one feature that needs to be included in all future car communication systems is a polite-but-firm sounding voice that occasionally admonishes the driver: "Sure would be nice to hear someone around here say 'Please' once in awhile!"

Jeffrey Shaffer writes humor from Portland, Ore.