June 26, 2008
The Dangerous World of a GPS That Does Not Exist

Every now and then something crosses my inbox that makes my jaw drop. Sometimes it's genius, sometimes it's astonishingly crass, and sometimes it's a combination of the two. This morning's report from DVICE.com on the Mio Knight Rider GPS is definitely a category three jaw-dropper.

On the one hand, it makes perfect sense. If you're going to have your car talk to you, and you're one of the generation of geeks that grew up in the 80's, you're most likely going to be secretly pretending that your compact or SUV is the Knight Industries Two Thousand anyway. On the other, this ranks right up there with a lightsaber remote control in burying the needle on the dorkometer. If nothing else, installing this sucker will provide a perfect litmus test for every future blind date that might set foot in your ride. Ever.

All easy jokes aside, the Knight Rider GPS actually does provoke some interesting thoughts. First, it's interesting that Mio licensed the original, 1980s voice of KITT, William Daniels, instead of the new KITT from NBC's upcoming Knight Rider remake. This might have something to do with the new voice being out of Mio's price range (I'd expect Val Kilmer doesn't come cheap), but since the device is scheduled to go on sale in "the August timeframe" and the new show is scheduled to launch on September 24th, I'd imagine there will be at least some would-be buyers scratching their heads and wondering why this KITT doesn't sound like the KITT on their TVs every Wednesday night. If the show takes off (as the pilot movie's 13 million viewers would seem to suggest), this could prove to be a real gotcha.

Second, is the voice from a 20-year-old cult TV show enough to justify a purchase when so many other interesting competitors are flooding the market? The Knight Rider GPS will supposedly retail for $270, which is $70 more than the 3G Apple iPhone with true GPS under its hood. Alpha geeks that sneer at Apple fanboys might be more interested in ponying up the extra forty bucks for the $299 Dash Express, which bills itself as the "first two-way, Internet-connected GPS navigation system". If the market for the Knight Rider GPS is an inherently geeky one, the iPhone and the Dash Express seem to be two pretty big shakers in that market already.

Finally, does this open the door for a whole raft of novelty GPS devices? How long will it be before we see a GPS with a UI lifted right from the Enterprise and the voice of Jonathan Frakes, that only responds if it's addressed as "Number One"? Or one with a brass-and-woodgrain casing that boots up with a whistle and responds to "Starbuck"?

A more interesting idea is the GPS as a platform for personalization across different drivers – we already have Mr. T, Dennis Hopper and Burt Reynolds giving us directions, and Nintendo's Wii Fit can have different trainers assigned to personal profiles, so why not GPS devices that recognize who's driving and customize their voices to each driver's preferences – or change their voices based on the time of day or location? During normal driving hours you might want to be guided by the soothing baritone of Patrick Stewart, but perhaps late at night when you might doze off behind the wheel the device could switch to the grating screech of Gilbert Gottfried. (Or, worse, it could direct all of its sound output to the rear speakers and imitate your mother-in-law. Hey, it could happen.)

Of course, as any hot-rodder, art car builder or bumper sticker aficionado could tell you, our vehicles have always been platforms for customization. Even giving them distinctive voices isn't anything new – all it takes is a couple of playing cards in the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Our vehicles are, for many of us, extensions of our personalities – and if your personality has been secretly dying to deploy out the back of a semi truck on some lost American highway for the last twenty years, then hey, more power to you.

Just please, please don't try the turbo boost.