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Honda Debuts Wired ‘Cyber Cars’

October 8, 2000

TOKYO (AP) _ It’s a glamorous idea: Cyber cars hooked to the Internet provide drivers with guides to thousands of restaurants, details on hot springs and schedules of festivals _ all right on the dashboard.

In practice, the technology is still a little clunky.

Honda Motor Co. and other Japanese automakers are touting their cyber cars as the wave of the future. Honda’s Internavi _ offered as a free service _ already has 40,000 customers in Japan.

The Honda system builds off a computer satellite navigator found in some 5 million cars in Japan. To the navigator _ a dashboard-mounted paperback-sized screen that shows maps _ technicians have added a modem, browser capability and a mobile phone.

The navigation machine costs about $1,800, and the extra parts for Internavi cost about $640, including installation fees. Honda has no plans yet to introduce Internavi in the United States.

The idea is exciting. Eventually, drivers will have the same instant Internet access in their cars as they do in their homes, making picking a place to go from the road and getting there much easier.

But as a recent test run of Honda’s system on Tokyo streets showed, it’ll be a while before surfing the Net from the driver’s seat is as easy as from your living room.

The Internavi can be cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming, and the information that turns up on Honda’s special Web site for the device is often sparse and disappointing.

The trouble starts with what’s missing: a keyboard.

To type in an Internet address, for example, drivers have to keep pushing a button to move a cursor along an alphabet list on the monitor, entering the letters one by one.

And don’t try accessing the Internet while cruising along: the Net function of the machine turns off automatically when the car is in motion as a safety precaution required by Japanese law.

The connection is not too speedy either. It takes at least a minute for a site with graphics to show up, and a search in the car takes about six times longer than a search on a regular computer. And it’s expensive: Portable phones cost about 29 cents a minute.

Those problems put customers back where they started _ at their home terminals. To save time and money, Honda recommends users do the search beforehand at home. The selected spots can be downloaded into a memory card, which is inserted in the navigation machine.

The Internavi Web page, set up in May, puts together travel information for drivers, including a guide to restaurants and events, the nearest hospitals and repair shops. The site offers 150,000 entries about entertainment, foood, shopping and travel. Next month, traffic reports and other features are to be added.

But the content remains a downside.

A search for restaurants gives menus, addresses and photos of dishes _ but not much more than what you’d get from a far less virtual restaurant-guide or gourmet magazine. The search function requires several clicks and its still hard to narrow down choices by preference such as price range, theme or popularity.

The plus side is that whatever the search turns up is compatible with the car’s navigation system, so finding the spot is a breeze. Your destination shows up as a dot on the navigation system map with a pink line showing the route. An electronic voice gives directions and the machine sets a new route if you make a wrong turn.

Despite the problems, Japanese automakers are beating their American rivals in the cyber car race.

General Motors Corp. has started offering Internet access in their cars with its Onstar this month. Ford Motor Co. has promised it for later this year.

And Honda is not the only Japanese carmaker in the game.

Nissan Motor Co. has put cell phones in their cars that connect to an operator who finds the requested information and sends it back through the cell phone into the car’s navigation machine.

Toyota Motor Corp., meanwhile, has a voice-activated system. The driver shouts out items such as ``news″ from a set menu, and the data pops up on the screen.

Honda engineer Satoshi Murata says his company is banking on a future when Net access will be taken for granted everywhere, not only at home but also in cars.

``We have the basic assumption we’re headed toward those times,″ Murata said. ``The main purpose of Internavi for now is to boost the number of Honda fans.″

Meanwhile, it may be less stressful to find places the non-virtual way. Look at a map, or ask a friend.


On the Net:

Honda Motor Co.: http://www.honda.co.jp/english

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