Look Ma No Hands

Voice-activated wireless phones may be considered an extravagance today but they may be a necessity tomorrow.

June, 2000

Wireless phones and cars. They are the bread and butter of business people on the go. Imagine not being able to speak on your phone while driving. Pretty hard, huh?

However, the unimaginable may someday become imaginable. To date, no state has actually enacted legislation to specifically limit the use of wireless telephones on the highway, but this isn’t for a lack of trying. Bills have been introduced in Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey to name a few. And here in Hawaii, since 1995, lawmakers have attempted to ban dialing while driving. In this past legislative session, two such bills, one in the House and the other in the Senate, were proposed but eventually killed.

But in any case, as the debate rages on, today’s answer to tomorrow’s conundrum may be voice-activated wireless technology. Currently available on a handful of luxury autos, voice-activated systems are primarily used for wireless phone functions, ranging in price from $1,000 to almost $3,000. But drivers’ voices will soon be carrying further. Already in Jaguar’s new S-type, rolled out early this year, drivers can control their phones, radios, CD players and even air conditioning units with simple spoken commands.

“Between 25 and 35 percent of all cars that I sell have some sort of voice-activated option,” says Chris Farmer, who sells Mercedes Benz at Theo Davies Euromotors. “It’s just the telephone now, but it’s just the beginning. Soon you’ll be able to control just about every function with your voice, everything but drive the car.”

Recently, this voice technology became available to those who don’t plan on buying a luxury auto any time soon. Last year, mobile audio company Fujitsu Ten introduced its Eclipse Commander, an integrated communications, navigation, security and entertainment system. With the Commander, drivers don’t have to lift a finger to control the functions of the CD player, radio, wireless phone, car alarm or just about any electronic function in the car. The Commander even includes an optional GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) navigation unit that will guide you through the city streets.

Last month, dealers in Hawaii began receiving the phone module of the Commander, a development that they believe will boost sales considerably. In addition, the software on Hawaii for the GPS system should be available later this summer.

“We’ve had the Commander for about a year now and to be honest sales have been a little slow,” says Brian Yamasaki, manager at Mobile Car Audio. “Up until now you would just be able to control the functions on your CD player and radio. But with the phone and navigational functions, it’s worth it. We are really expecting sales to take off.”

According to Yamasaki, the Eclipse CD tuner, which is the base unit for the system, ranges in price from $330 to $550. The Commander unit, which includes phone and GPS functions, is an additional $400.

“I would certainly think that it will be a big growth area for us,” says Hank Nguyen, president of Island Sound.

“We still are trying to do research to see what consumer we can sell the Commander to successfully. Sales on the mainland have been quite good, and people who use it think it is the greatest thing.”

Like Yamasaki, Nguyen sees the promise of big sales and a new type of consumer, one who is interested as much with safety as sound. “To the kids who buy much of our products, this stuff probably doesn’t mean anything,” says Nguyen. “But for the people who are concerned with safety, ease of use, that sort of thing. Well, this is it.”

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David K. Choo