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Remember When the Nissan Maxima Used to Talk?

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author photo by Will Kinton September 2016

In 1981, Nissan -- the car company formerly known as Datsun -- released the first generation of the Maxima as a near-luxury, top-of-the-line model to replace the Datsun 810. The Maxima came equipped with an inline 6-cylinder engine, was available in sedan or wagon variants, and featured rear-wheel drive. But the Maxima's coolest feature was its voice warning system.

While this may not seem like a huge deal today in the world of smartphones that are 120 million times more powerful than Apollo 11, digital sound wasn't widely available when the Maxima was released. Nissan engineers developed a solution using hardware: a tiny, miniaturized phonograph.

The phonograph used a 3-inch plastic record that was initially inscribed with a single message -- "the lights are on" -- from a disembodied female voice. The message would play if you forgot to turn the lights off after shutting down the car. Five other messages were included for the following model year, including "key is in the ignition," "right door is open," "left door is open," "parking brake is on" and "fuel level is low."

The system remained in the second-generation Maxima, alongside additional technological marvels such as digital touch entry and an adjustable suspension system that used sonar waves to read the road conditions ahead. After the Maxima, as well as Chrysler, General Motors, Ford and Toyota, all followed Nissan's lead of experimenting with the idea of talking cars and creating further variations on the theme. For example, the Chrysler New Yorker encouraged drivers to fasten their seat belts and then actually said "thank you" once they were buckled. But unlike the original Nissan versions of the idea, later voice systems were digitally based, using synthesized voices and microchips to warn drivers -- an impressive accomplishment, but not nearly as cool as a little record player.

But Nissan and its rivals eventually pulled the plug on the idea. While the concept of a talking car was nothing short of cutting-edge for the time, the novelty soon transformed into an annoyance. Just a few years after their introduction, talking cars came with on/off switches -- and by the 1990s, they were almost completely gone from the new-car market and forgotten by the public.

Here's a video that shows the Maxima's voice warning system in action.

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Remember When the Nissan Maxima Used to Talk? - Autotrader