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Car Computers: How Badly Do Road Warriors Want to Be Wired?
This one uses voice technology — but it's costly and not ready for prime time

Car PCsA slice of small-business life -- future tense? Harried entrepreneur, her PalmPilot crammed with appointments, gets in her car. She turns on the ignition and fires up her AutoPC. She types in an address and zooms off. The machine calls out directions. She'll be late for her 11 o'clock, so she asks AutoPC to retrieve the number. In an instant, she's on the cell phone, rescheduling. Then she asks AutoPC to read her 15 waiting E-mails. She deals with them one by one.

Car-stereo maker Clarion is working hard to make this road warrior's wired fantasy a reality. Clarion released AutoPC last December, and Business Week's frontier Online tested it recently with Steve Martin, an affable Clarion regional sales rep, who drove us around in his AutoPC-equipped Acura.

The device raises three questions -- does even a time-pressed entrepreneur really need to do all those things while driving? Is that safe? And is AutoPC worth the money? The first question is philosophical -- just how available do you want to be? As for the second, Martin insists voice-activated computing is safer to use on the road than a cell phone because your hands are free: "Believe me, this thing has to be safe or I wouldn't use it." Still, it's pretty distracting to wrestle (mentally) with technology and your business. Most important: Is AutoPC worth it? We found it fun to use -- but not ready for prime time. For the moment, it's essentially a $1,299 car stereo. And you'll have to spend considerably more for add-ons to make it useful as a computer or even as a navigating tool.

Car computers have attracted considerable interest, primarily as navigation devices. But with the proliferation of cell phones, it was inevitable that tech companies would hand road warriors tools to do even more office tasks while driving. To date, AutoPC is the only car computer available that doesn't come factory-installed. It also promises more conventional computing functions than, for example, Cadillac's OnStar system, which offers route information and also automatically calls for help in an emergency. However, Intel and other companies have acknowledged they're developing competitors to AutoPC.

Tom Rhinelander, an analyst for Forrester Research, which tracks technology trends, dubs AutoPC "immature." In its initial incarnation, AutoPC includes an AM/FM radio with a 35-watt-per-channel amplifier, and a CD/CD-ROM player. It comes with an address-book program, a small color display, and 16MB of RAM to handle the device's computing potential. AutoPC is powered by Windows CE, a scaled-down version of the Windows operating system, used on desktop and notebook computers and its palmsize handheld devices.

The biggest problem with AutoPC is cost. On top of the device's price, the navigation system -- global positioning service (GPS) -- costs $250. The maps GPS uses cost $170, and the routing software $200. One AutoPC option that will please the safety freaks is a $300 cradle that connects your car phone to AutoPC's address book. Simply tell the computer to find a number, and it dials it. You needn't take your eyes off the road. Clarion acknowledges that AutoPC isn't exactly flying out retailers' doors. "We're in the early adopter stage," says a Clarion spokesperson. Martin, Clarion's rep, says the device has attracted some affluent buyers, though the market has hardly reached critical mass.

Using AutoPC is simple: It accepts voice commands, which you begin by saying: "AutoPC." It responds to its name with a digital gurgle to let you know it's listening -- like a computer on Star Trek.

Unlike the Star Trek computers, AutoPC doesn't understand random questions, only specific commands, which you must memorize. They were easy to remember, however. When we were befuddled about our location, we asked: "AutoPC. [gurgle] Where am I?" It then told us the road and the municipality.

On our test drive, the only task for which we couldn't use voice commands was setting the destination when seeking route instructions. To do that, you use buttons to select letters, which appear on-screen. Then you type in the address. Obviously, you shouldn't attempt this while driving.

AutoPC did pretty well as a navigation device, especially for the directionally challenged. We went astray, and a courteous but firm woman's voice informed us: "You are off-route." Then she set us straight: "In 2.5 miles, turn right onto the off-ramp for Highway 30."A few minutes later, we blew past the off-ramp and, within 20 seconds, AutoPC informed us of our error. It provided a new route to our destination and, to make sure we stayed on it, warned us as each turn approached.

AutoPC's second problem is that few computing features are available for it. Another vendor is testing E-mail-retrieval software that would permit AutoPC to download messages and read a shortened version out loud. That option fails to impress Forrester's Rhinelander, who sees little need for car computers in the next few years: "Checking E-mail while you drive is useful, but it's not compelling. You're better off using a Palm VII or something else that lets you get out of your car and take your E-mail with you." Rhinelander referred to a new version of the popular Palm handheld computer, which has built-in wireless capabilities.

Martin contends that voice-based products such as the car-phone cradle will make AutoPC a big draw eventually, particularly for safety reasons -- people will keep conducting business in their cars. As a sales rep, Martin says he has a vested interest in safety because he spends a lot of time in his car: "I've seen stuff with car phones that's truly frightening. I saw one person driving down the highway at 70 miles an hour with the phone cradled on his shoulder, eating a doughnut. I saw another person talking on the phone and reading a newspaper."

Is there a place for the car computer longer term? Rhinelander thinks so. But they need to be cheaper and designed to make driving easier -- not devices for turning your car into a branch office on wheels. "In 10 years, all cars will have something like AutoPC. It will naturally evolve," he says. Sometimes, it just doesn't pay to be an early adopter.

By David Haskin in Madison, Wis.



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