A model to mark Mini's 50th birthday will 'voice' opinions on how the car's being driven, reports Maurice Glover. This article first appeared in the IMI's 'Motor Industry Magazine' (MIM)
The satnav voice that tells you to take the third exit at the next roundabout is about to be joined by another that speaks every time you turn on the ignition.
That's the prospect facing motorists taking delivery of a new special edition Mini. The Mini Camden issues a cheery "Good morning" or "Good evening" when the engine starts and "Bye, bye now - I'm already looking forward to our next ride" each time it is turned off.
The car that will be produced over the next 12 months to mark Mini's 50th anniversary also makes its 'feelings' known on a wide range of topics relating to the way it is being driven and is paving the way for similar gadgetry. Parent company BMW says it's "the future of interactive entertainment on the move".
But is this a development that represents motoring heaven or hell?
Drivers old enough to recall the first voice systems in Vanden Plas, MG Maestro and Renault 11 cars two decades ago may not be as enthusiastic.
Back in 1984, the BL Group beat Renault by just one month to be first to market with a digital speedometer and synthesised voice system.
The dulcet tones of a lady named Nicolette McKenzie informed occupants of the BL cars about improper use of the handbrake and lights, but gained notoriety even before it became available to the public when an over-zealous driver managed to overturn a Maestro at the media launch in southern France. As the car rested on its roof midway through a hairpin bend, it informed the hapless journalist: "Warning, low oil pressure".
Lamented one of the public relations team at the time: "We felt that incident resulted in some unfair press coverage because the system was only doing what it was designed to do - and it could be argued that in the circumstances, the driver would not have noticed an oil warning light blinking on the dashboard."
Further complexity came with Renault's 11 TXE Electronique model, which added checks on engine temperature, fuel and coolant level and brake pad wear. But this top-range car also had a poor reception in the showrooms and was withdrawn after only two years as customers demonstrated a clear preference for traditional instrumentation.
All of which begs the question: Will the current popularity of digital and voice-activation technology allow the 'talking' Mini to enjoy greater success?
A spokesman at the R&D centre told MIM: "We call our new technology mission control and see it as the launch of next-generation in-car entertainment systems that evaluate a range of vehicle, driving and ambient signals.
"It is the first step into a brand new world of interactive entertainment and it offers a unique driving experience. We think it will be popular because it supports the driver over and above existing functions in properly interpreting information and using data for appropriate action.
"While we see this as primarily a safety device, we think it is entirely fitting that our vehicle will talk in certain situations because market research clearly shows that Mini owners like to have more emotional interaction with their cars."
Camden comes to town
Production of the Mini Camden began on August 26, 50 years to the day the original car rolled from the line. It comes with a choice of petrol or diesel engines, boasts six-speed transmission and special paintwork, interior trim and 17-inch metallic alloy wheels. It also has a jubilee badge on the front grille.
It also has plenty to say for itself, starting with "Buckled up and ready to go!" when the driver fastens the seatbelt.
When it detects the fuel level is low, it announces: "We just reached the reserve tank so I would say it's time to fill up!" Moving off with the handbrake on brings the comment: "If you love the handbrake you have to set it free."
Dare to drive away with an unsecured door and it warns: "Attention, a door is open", before asking: "Is someone trying to escape?"
And if it is driven too quickly with a cold engine, the car pleads: "Ease up on the gas a bit, I'm not warmed up yet, but I'll let you know when I am."
Continued high speed driving prompts the message: "Take it easy please and we'll save fuel at the same time." And motoring with the sunroof open while the air conditioning system is in operation brings the comment: "This is no good - one of them has to go to make any environmental sense at all and that's that!"
My road test of the 2.0 EFI version of the MG Maestro introduced in 1985 was full of praise for the car's interior packaging and claimed that an appealing blend of dash and frugality made it a worthy alternative to high-flier Golf, Astra and Escort models of the day.
But it concluded: "However, I am pleased to see that the electronic dashboard - and the infuriating female voice that comes with it - is now an option.
"I prefer the analogue instruments and find it hard to imagine why anyone should want to pay £195 for what amounts to the high-tech equivalent of a back-seat driver.
"Still, the Lucas computer system does come with a switch that allows you to fade 'her' out…"
Reproduced with the permission of MIM (thanks!)