Honda Motor, with help from partner IBM Corp., reportedly is preparing to introduce an improved speech-recognition system that will allow drivers to get voice navigation guidance without having to manually punch in any information or take their eyes off the road to read a computer screen.

The Associated Press said the new system will come as standard equipment this month in the United States on the redesigned 2005 Acura RL sedan and as an option on the 2005 Acura MDX sport utility vehicle and redesigned 2005 Honda Odyssey minivan. As an option, it will cost about $US2,000.

Using embedded IBM software, the system can provide voice guidance for more than 1.7 million street and city names in the continental United States, AP added. It also offers audible directions – and even reviews – for nearby restaurants, and command-and-control capabilities for audio, climate control and other functions.

“Drivers can now fully access the majority of the resources inside the navigation system with voice input,” Tom Elliott, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co., told the Associated Press.

Honda began using IBM’s speech-recognition technology in 2003, but the new system has the ability to process a human voice and deliver natural-sounding responses, the report said. The new equipment can respond to hundreds more commands than the original version, according to Honda.

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Phil Magney, principal analyst at the Minnesota-based Telematics Research Group, told AP that voice recognition is quickly becoming the most important interface between drivers and their vehicles. For now, voice-recognition capabilities are available primarily in premium vehicles, though Honda is bringing them “down market” somewhat by offering them in the Odyssey minivan.

The Associated Press noted that IBM’s voice technology also is employed in the OnStar safety and security system available in numerous General Motors vehicles, while other types of voice-recognition technology is available on models from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and other brands.

The number of automotive voice-recognition systems sold in the United States was roughly 2 million in 2003, AP said, citing the Telematics Research Group. That number is forecast to reach more than 11 million in 2010.