A car pulls up next to yours at a stoplight, and the driver is carrying on an animated conversation with no one. The driver glances at you, continues talking to the air and drives away.
A scene from "Seinfeld?" Nope. It's the very real world of the Jeep® Commander and its voice-activated computer system.
The Commander, DaimlerChrysler's concept sport-utility vehicle, features technology to read and send e-mail, set up appointments and activate the vehicle's security system - all with the sound of a voice. The driver's hands stay on the wheel and eyes remain on the road.
"The emphasis of the Commander's computer system is to use voice controls to make it easier for the driver to use the computer," says Steve Buckley, DaimlerChrysler electronics specialist.
The Commander system starts with a "docked" or removable laptop computer in the center console. Linked to a display on the instrument panel, the computer will provide wireless Internet access, including current traffic information and weather updates.
The computer also delivers global positioning system (GPS) mapping, a security system, phone connections and mobile office functions, such as e-mail, a calendar and an appointment schedule.
While the computer can be controlled with a keyboard, a number of functions can be activated by the sound of the driver's voice through a microphone on top of the Commander's instrument panel.
For example, the driver can dictate a message and the computer will translate it to an electronic message and send it through the Internet. In the future, similar computers also will read e-mail aloud to the driver using text-to-speech technology. The same technology can be used to make and hear calendar appointments.
"When you're driving home and remember something you should have done at work, you can verbally remind yourself and tell your computer to e-mail that message to your office - all without touching a keypad," says Buckley.
Along with its voice-activated controls, Commander's computer features a high-tech security system that literally captures the identity of a car thief. A camera in the instrument panel makes a visual recording of the thief, which can then be sent electronically to authorities. GPS also helps authorities track the whereabouts of a heisted Commander.
Given that the computer docks with Commander, and is not built into the vehicle, its software can be continually upgraded - extending the life of the system and allowing it to be used in the office, at home or, perhaps, in another vehicle.
"As long as it's working on my laptop, it'll work in my car. Using my own computer in the Commander keeps the system affordable and personalized," Buckley said.