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Miracle of the 1980s: The Talking Car

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author photo by Aaron Gold May 2017

Let's take another journey back to the 1980s, otherwise known as the land of my youth. It was a time when personal electronics were making mass inroads into daily life, and Nissan (then known as Datsun) came up with a doozy: the talking car.

I have lots of personal experience here, because my uncle and aunt had one of the first talking cars. He bought a 1982 Datsun-by-Nissan 810 Maxima, the first talking car available on the U.S. market. (Technically, it was the '81 810 Maximas that were the first talkers.) My uncle later gave the car to my father, and it was the car in which I took my driver's test.

The technology was pretty darn cool: Instead of the usual door-open or key-in chime (which, in Datsuns of the day, was a pleasant two-tone bing-bong, bing-bong), the Maxima would ding and talk.

Bink! "Key is in the ignition."

Bink! "Lights are on."

Bink! "Fuel level is low."

The Maxima would also warn us that either the left or the right door was open (for some reason, the announcement for the left door was a bit breathier), and that what she referred to as the "bocking brake" was on.

I was always amazed at the clarity of the voice: It was certainly better than the obviously-digitized voice on the '85 Maxima my aunt and uncle bought to replace the '82. I figured the older device was mechanical -- you could hear a solid click before and after she spoke -- but it wasn't until some three decades later, when Murilee Martin opened one up for AutoWeek, that I learned just how mechanical it was: The original Maxima's voice box was actually a little tiny plastic record. (If you do nothing else today, watch this video he made. Seriously, Japanese engineers are, like, magic.)

The system was a novelty, to be sure, but it was also tremendously handy. After a few months of driving the same car, it's easy enough to ignore the key-in chime; goodness knows I've all but tuned it out in our old Honda. But it's impossible to ignore a woman in the dashboard telling you that your keys are still in the ignition.

Unfortunately, other automakers caught on to the idea. And they made it worse.

It started with Chrysler, which came out with an electronic version using the same synthesized voice as a Speak-and-Spell. I don't know if you're familiar with that electronic wonder, but if you want to know why my generation has so little regard for the teaching profession, it's because we were traumatized by that gloomy voice telling us, "That is incorrect."

Anyway, Chrysler's Electronic Voice Alert was a total nag. Not only did it tell you about lights, doors, fuel and parking brake, but it would also badger you to fasten your seat belt, plus it would pester you about potential problems with the engine (low coolant, low oil, low washer fluid, etc.) and lecture you about the consequences of inaction.

Chrysler's EVA also promoted you to talk back: Early versions of the car would warn, "A door is ajar," prompting many drivers to reply, "No, it's a door." (Chrysler later changed this to "please close your passenger door.") If the engine had a problem, the EVA might say, "Your engine oil pressure is critical. Engine damage may occur." Yeah, well, if the engines were screwed together correctly in the first place, maybe the oil would stay inside the crankcase where it belonged. You can hear the EVA go through its complete post-ajar litany in this video.

If the problem was a quick fix -- say, closing the door -- your Chrysler would respond with a smarmy and decidedly un-heartfelt "thank you."

In 1986, Oldsmobile introduced a radically downsized version of the Toronado, which was actually a very handsome car. Among its high-tech features: an electronic dashboard with -- you guessed it! -- a voice-alert system, using a slightly-more-sophisticated version of Chrysler's Marvin the Paranoid Android voice. Except this one wouldn't shut up. My guess is, the lawyers got involved and required long-winded explanations and disclaimers about mechanical issues. See if you don't agree when you watch this video of a Trofeo pontificating about the possible consequences of a faulty alternator.

And this is why we can't have nice things.

As talking cars got more and more verbose, buyers decided that maybe giving a voice to our personal transportation wasn't such a good idea. Digital dashboards faded out of favor, and talking cars went the same way. When Nissan introduced the third-generation Maxima for the 1989 model year, the voice alert system -- and may I note that Nissan's system remained helpful, terse and unobtrusive? -- was quietly dropped.

Today, technically, cars do talk; most have hands-free phones and voice recognition systems, and making a phone call involves some degree of two-way communication with the car. The big difference: We initiate it. No longer do cars warn you of low fuel or a left-behind key in a pleasant (or, in the case of the Chrysler and Oldsmobile, unpleasant) voice. Today's cars generally do not speak until spoken to.

Which, I guess, is a good thing...although I wouldn't mind it if my Honda piped up once in a while. "Psst. Aaron. Take your keys. And remember to park on the other side of the street, or you'll get a ticket tomorrow morning." Thanks, car!

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Miracle of the 1980s: The Talking Car - Autotrader