"This is your car speaking," announces a voice from inside the dashboard. "You are running low on fuel."
The voice is not a ventriloquist in the back seat. It's a talking instrument panel, and many engineers believe it could start appearing in new cars as early as 1982. The key to the device is something known as a voice synthesizer, and electronic device already widely used to allow computers to "talk."
Car designers feel that a voice might be less distracting than the plethora of bells, buzzers and red lights now in use. The synthesizer can be designed to sound any way you want -- a sexy voice, your own voice and, for the speedometer perhaps, your mother-in-law's voice.
"Just think, it might make backseat drivers obsolete," says Richard Wiggins of Texas Instruments.
Myles Kitchen of National Semiconductor thinks a synthesizer with a vocabulary of 50 words would add about $75 to the price of a car already fitted with a computerized electronic instrument panel.
All three big U.S. automakers have begun installing minicomputers in new models to regulate the engine and meet tough new pollution standards, and all are studying voice synthesizing in the minicomputers. Ford Motor is reported just one step away from a talking dashboard for its Lincoln Continental, but company officials aren't sure whether the public wants it, or what the reaction might be.
Said one Ford employee: "My wife talks back, my kids talk back, the dog barks back. Believe me, the last thing I would want is my car talking back."