City Smart / How to thrive in the urban environment of Southern California : Coming Soon: Driving Tips From Your Car


Perennially rushed commuters soon may find it easier to avoid traffic jams--and relieve their loneliness in the process.

Testing will begin soon on a talking navigation system that will literally tell drivers the fastest way to reach their destination.

And you may be able to play blackjack on the way.

Auto navigation systems that display maps have been in use for years. But only recently did Monrovia-based Amerigon begin selling a voice-activated system that tells drivers how to get from Point A to Point B--as well as the whereabouts of the nearest gas station, ATM and McDonald’s.


Now, the firm is examining ways to incorporate up-to-the-minute traffic information into the system, so that when you ask, “How do I get from downtown to LAX?” it will steer you clear of the SigAlert on the Santa Monica Freeway and direct you to take the Harbor Freeway to the Century Freeway.

Similar high-tech systems may be in use in the next century. In Seattle, tests are underway to determine if traffic information can be transmitted to small electronic displays on Seiko watches. Such systems are bound to be popular among Southern Californians, who will try just about anything to cut a few minutes off their commute.

Books on shortcuts have been hot sellers for years. Caltrans puts a map of freeway conditions--updated every 30 seconds--on the World Wide Web. Transportation officials are exploring broadcasting continuous radio traffic reports, like the one in place for people traveling to and from Los Angeles International Airport.

Commuters complain that the traffic reports on commercial radio--even with broadcasts as often as every six minutes--are sometimes outdated. The radio reports also fail to carry traffic conditions on every freeway and may miss a flare-up on your route.

The talking navigation system also would provide commuters with alternative routes to avoid congestion, said Amerigon Vice President Joshua Newman.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District and the Energy Commission are helping fund a field test that will determine how well the system works in relaying traffic information to commuters and whether motorists respond by taking an alternative route. Officials say the product shows promise in reducing traffic congestion--and thereby smog--and hope to begin recruiting Los Angles drivers for road tests soon.



The Amerigon navigation system--sort of a talking Thomas Bros. map that sells for $600 to $700--connects to compact disc players and carries on its dialogue with the driver using a microphone on the visor. A company write-up assures that no voice training is necessary. The system “responds to virtually all North American dialects, including accents from Dallas to Boston.”

When a driver gets into the car and turns on the system, a male voice asks, “Do you want to navigate?” If you say yes, the system asks you to spell street names or the names of landmarks related to your current location and destination. Within seconds, a voice gives directions.

The system does not tell drivers when they are lost. But it can put you back on course if you provide your location.

Nor does it tell drivers to slow down or offer any other driving advice.

The Energy Commission also is investigating whether the system can direct electric car owners to the nearest recharging station.

A similar system was tested several years ago. State and federal officials outfitted 25 Oldsmobile 88s with a navigation system called “Pathfinder,” which provided traffic information on a map mounted in the dash.

Amerigon also is developing voice-interactive computer games for use in the car.

Blackjack is one game under study. Drivers would play by talking to the computer, which would talk back. The computer would deal the cards, then ask how much you want to bet. You can double down, split, hit or stand.


The company also is looking at educational games for children--for those long trips.

And, Amerigon is developing a radar system that would sound a beep in the car when its driver wants to make a lane change but cannot see a vehicle in the next lane because of a blind spot.