High Tech Hits the High Road: Wireless technologies enhance the driving experience

Next time you?re swearing at your car because it won?t start, remember just what a sophisticated piece of technology it really is. Computers already control many aspects of it, such as the ignition and climate control systems. However, some interesting new technology is now spilling out from under the hood and invading the passenger compartment.

There may be a day soon when you won?t have to reach for a knob or button to turn on the radio, roll down the windows or order a pizza for pickup further down the road. That day is closer than you think. For example, IBM Corp. recently announced a new speech-recognition system that lets drivers verbally ask their car for directions and get a spoken response. The system, based on IBM?s Embedded ViaVoice software, is being offered as standard equipment in American Honda Motor Co. Inc.?s 2005 Acura RL vehicles and as an option in its Acura MDX and Honda Odyssey minivan. When you ask your car for directions, the ViaVoice software recognizes your words and feeds your request to the car?s navigation system. The navigation system uses global positioning satellites (GPS) to figure out where you are and then maps a route to the destination you requested on a dashboard display. The software also allows a driver to control a car?s entertainment system with spoken commands. According to IBM, the speech-enhanced navigation system understands more than 700 commands and has a library of more than 1.7 million street and city names.

Some cars now have Bluetooth wireless networking built in. Bluetooth allows devices like cell phones and handheld computers to link wirelessly with each other, or with devices like hands-free headsets or printers. Cars with Bluetooth adapters built into the dashboard connect with compatible cell phones to turn your car?s audio system into a speakerphone. You can transmit your contact list from your phone to the car and then dial calls from the dashboard while your phone stays in your pocket. Honda?s HandsFreeLink system, available in selected models, includes Bluetooth and voice recognition. Once you link the system with your Bluetooth cell phone, you can perform a number of voice-driven tasks. For example, when your phone rings, you can say ?answer,? and the call is automatically sent to the car?s speakerphone system. A simple command like ?hang up? ends the call. The caller ID information comes up in a display on the dashboard.

If your family can?t part with its favorite TV shows during road trips, satellite TV might be the right prescription for you?if you can afford it. KVH Industries (888-584-4163, www.kvh.com) now offers TracVision 5, a dinner-plate-size satellite TV antenna that attaches to the roof of your vehicle and lets you receive live, cable-quality TV as you drive. If you sign up for DirectTV?s Total Choice Mobile Service, you get access to 125 channels of static-free TV as you drive.

The TracVision 5 system includes a receiver, the antenna and a remote control. The system can be connected to most existing mobile video systems, according to KVH. The TracVision 5 hardware costs $2,295 and there?s a $39.99 monthly charge for the mobile TV service. If you?re already a DirectTV subscriber, you can add mobile TV service for an additional $4.99 a month.

Of course, satellite radio is also available for road warriors. Satellite radio provides clear, CD-quality radio reception that doesn?t disappear as you drive from city to city. Most automakers offer models with satellite radios already installed. You can also upgrade your current system by adding a satellite radio receiver and a special antenna.

The two largest satellite radio networks in the United States, Sirius (888-539-7474; www.sirius.com) and XM Satellite Radio (800-967-2346, www.xmradio.com), offer hundreds of music, talk, sports, news and other channels. Delphi Corp.?s (248-813-2000; www.delphi.com) new XM Roady 2 satellite radio receiver, a card-deck-size satellite radio, lets you take XM Satellite Radio stations with you when you leave your car. The $130 receiver is less than four inches wide, less than two and a half inches high and less than three-quarters of an inch thick. In your car the unit connects directly to the car?s audio system. However the unit also has an FM modulator built in. This allows you to transmit satellite radio through a nearby FM radio.

The basic XM Radio subscription is $9.99 per month but the monthly cost drops if you pay for one to five years in advance. If you?re a multiple satellite radio family, monthly subscriptions for the second to fifth radios are $6.99 each. A Sirius subscription is $12.95 per month, or you can prepay for a year and get a month free, or prepay for two years and get three months free. Until December you can pay $499.99 and never pay another bill for life.

Many manufacturers offer mobile video systems built around a DVD player. Delphi?s new DVDM-1020 rear seat entertainment system includes a 10.2-inch widescreen display and two wireless headsets. The $1,200 unit includes a remote control and the display adjusts to the amount of ambient light. The company also offers the $900 DVDM-800, a similar system with an 8-inch display.

The road can be rough and bumpy, but today?s technology can help you forget about it for a few hours at a time.