Voice activation central to automakers' strategy wirelessauto: GM, Ford blazing trail to offer drivers hands-off Net access and navigation systems

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Fasten your seatbelts. While more high-tech, wireless gizmos are being added to cars, ads and promotional pitches may be limited to a select group of auto marketers.

Both General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. promise the first voice-activated navigation systems and Internet access later this year on select models.

"We want to enhance the driving experience and a key part of that is driving safely, so we've minimized the use of pushing buttons," says Rodney Williams, director of new services at GM's OnStar Communications, a wireless service for GM vehicles that uses global positioning system technology.

The automaker has offered voice-activated phones for OnStar's satellite and telecommunications system for several years. OnStar, which bowed in fall 1996 on three Cadillac models, now is available on 29 GM marques across all brands except Saturn.

Prices for Internet capability on the upgraded system are expected to be higher than the current $199 annually for the safety service and $399 for the travel-assistance package.


GM partnered with General Magic to develop voice-recognition technology, which will operate on the carmaker's OnStar system, says Mr. Williams. With a voice command, drivers will be able to make and receive phone calls, get information from the Internet, get directions and make dinner reservations. There's no screen for the navigational system or Internet access.

Bell Atlantic Corp. and GTE Corp., which Bell Atlantic is buying, are creating a national cellular phone network for OnStar, eliminating the need for contracts with other providers.

GM says the new OnStar system could bring in $40 per month per vehicle in service fees. The car marketer predicts it will have 1 million OnStar subscribers by yearend, up from the current 120,000.

OnStar could go beyond a car: One service in development would let a driver download maps and information from OnStar in a car to a portable Windows CE device.

OnStar kicked off a $50 million ad campaign via Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., last month that touts benefits of the system. TV spots show Batman getting a lesson on the service from his butler.

For now, however, GM has no plans to send targeted promotional pitches or ads to motorists using the OnStar system, a GM spokeswoman says.


Toyota Motor Sales USA is talking to GM about a deal to offer OnStar in its vehicles.

Toyota's Lexus Division does not advertise the navigational system it has offered since 1998. One feature is called Home Link. Lexus owners with Home Link don't need separate remote controls for garage-door openers. They can, with the push of a button in their cars, do that as well as control their home security alarms.

Motorists can't program the Lexus Navigation System while driving, says Glenn Holmes, technology coordination manager at the carmaker. "We took the more conservative way, so you can only program the system when the car is stopped."

This fall, Lexus moves its navigational system from a hard-drive operation to a DVD format. The DVD version will let owners update maps with a CD-ROM in their car, rather than having to go to a dealer to have it done.


DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz USA has its own offering -- Tele Aid, a system that joins hardware and software to allow drivers to talk to someone at the company from their car, or get emergency help with the push of a button.

Mercedes touts it in a funny TV spot -- one that promises the system can do everything but remember wedding anniversaries. The spot created by Merkley Newman Harty, New York, broke late last year.

Ads for Ford's Jaguar Cars North America say it has "the industry's first" voice-activated controls for audio, climate and phone with an integrated navigation system in its S-Type sedan. Ogilvy & Mather, New York, handles.

Navigational systems cost between $1,000 and $3,500, depending on whether they are installed at the factory or as an aftermarket service, says Jim Spoonhower, VP-market research at the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a non-profit auto aftermarket trade group.

Some states have threatened to pass laws banning video display screens visible in the front seats of vehicles, Mr. Spoonhower says. But right now, drivers could legally surf the Net while they drive.

GM's Oldsmobile Division was first in 1998 to offer rear-seat VCRs in its Silhouette minivan -- a way to keep the kids quiet on road trips.


In Japan, 20% of cars have navigational systems, Mr. Spoonhower says, predicting the systems will become more mainstream in the U.S. this year.

Some hardware and software companies that make these systems have discussed the idea of using marketing messages to cut the cost of the systems to consumers, Mr. Spoonhower says.

But none of the current navigational systems does that, even though he predicts marketing may play a strong role in the future.

There also is another technology available, but it's at least a decade away. With it, car owners could drive hands-free via sensors installed in or next to the road.

The technology was tested along a seven-mile stretch of a San Diego freeway using specially equipped GM Buicks several years ago.

Says Mr. Spoonhower: "The infrastructure costs are slowing it down."

If it happens, maybe drivers will be able to stop steering and start surfing.

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