Built-in Butler might ease future drivers' chores


October 24, 2003|by CATRINA COGHILL/Wheelbase Communications

Good help might be a little easier to find in the very near future . . . right there on the showroom floor.

Imagine a car that can give you a heads-up about traffic jams, will play Name That Tune to keep you awake when it thinks you're becoming fatigued, and can even read your lips if it can't "hear" you over the kids.

No, you haven't tuned in to an old episode of Knight Rider with the car named Kit.

According to a recent Associated Press story, you can look forward to the Built-in Butler, which might be coming to a dealership near you. (I can hear overwhelmed parents breathing a much-needed sigh of relief from all the way over here.)

IBM is the brain behind this four-wheeling Jeeves that can take dictation, send e-mails and - a special feature just for the guys in the audience - provide directions to the hopelessly lost. (Of course, that doesn't mean guys will listen to the directions. It's only technology after all - it can't perform miracles.)


"We're talking about a butler in the dashboard who would look after you, take care of your every need," said Mahesh Viswanathan, an IBM researcher who was quoted in the story.

Sounds more like a built-in mother - or mother-in-law - than a built-in butler.

How's this for motherly intuition. If this car of the future can't "hear" you over the screaming kids in the back seat, it will read your lips. On one hand, that's just wonderful. On the other, it's a little frightening. What happens if you're indulging in a relatively innocent moment of road frustration, someone cuts you off and the mini camera mounted on the dash reads your lips when you mouth: "go straight to heck!" (or a less-PG version thereof). What happens then?

This thing might even be able to detect if you're drowsy and then program your favorite Karaoke music to get you singing and, presumably, keep you alert. Of course, that would depend on what, exactly, your favorite music would be, but you get the point.

It might also be able to sense a combination of speed, road and weather conditions and, when the combination is right (or disastrously wrong, actually), turn off all interior distractions (music, phones, etc . . . all except the kids) to help you focus on the road.

IBM's prototype - and similar architecture such as Microsoft's Windows Automotive 4.2 - is supposed to make our lives behind the wheel easier and, to a degree, safer. Instead of fumbling with a cellphone to check if your flight is on time, this tech-puppy is supposed to do the trick while we, the owners, concentrate on driving.

I'm all for taking the cellphone out of a driver's hand. But maybe the brains behind the Built-in Butler could work out the kinks on a few other ideas:

If the technology is already in place to alert us to a possible tie-up a few blocks ahead, can it help us find a parking spot? How about alerting us to someone hiding in bushes beside the back door of the house?

What about ice on the walk or whether there's anything in the mailbox that needs retrieving?

Or, hey, could it tell us if there's a long line-up at the drive-thru heading on over?

As a butler, could it clean up after us? Could it take care of that ketchup stain on the carpet? Could it refold the map and neatly store it inside the glove compartment; empty the ashtray; or clean the windows from the inside? Oh, that's right, it will tell us how to get where we need to go, so we won't need maps any more.

Hmmmmm . . . ah HA! can it settle the argument between the kids over who gets to pick the radio station?

And when it talks, can it sound like Sean Connery? Hey, a girl can dream.

Now we're curious about what would make your life easier behind the wheel. Here's your chance to tell IBM what features you would like to see. Karoake, Name that Tune, Sean Connery? Let us know and we'll pass it along.

Catrina Coghill is a journalist with Wheelbase Communications You can e-mail her at

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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