'Smart' radios tune in, turn on without a touch


By this time next year, car radios will be so smart they'll turn themselves on when they have something important to say.

That's just one of the features of a new generation of "smart" car radios introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The new radios will cost only a few dollars more than regular models, but the things they'll eventually be able to do will amaze you. For instance:

You are driving along the freeway with your radio turned off. It will automatically turn itself on as a station begins to air a traffic report.

Driving in an unfamiliar city, you decide you would like to listen to a station that plays oldies rock 'n' roll. Just press a button and your radio will scan every station offering this format.

On a late-night drive, you tune to a local National Public Radio station. As you drive and the signal fades, your radio automatically switches to a new NPR station so you don't miss a word of your program.

It's all possible with a new technology called RBDS -- Radio Broadcast Data System. Stations will devote a small portion of their signal to data that will allow the station to send information to your car radio. That means a radio station will be able to operate your car radio by remote control, or send messages that print out on the display.

The feature will add only about $50 to the cost of a radio. By late this year, models -- generally with tape decks included -- will be on the market from Sony, Philips, Denon, Kenwood, Delco, Onkyo and Grundig. Prices will be in the $350 to $400 range.

Almost no new equipment is needed for a radio station to use RBDS -- just a $4,000 device called an encoder that sends the digital data signal over the air.

"It should be the biggest thing to come along in years for consumer electronics," said Philip Roberson, Denon product manager for RBDS. "It's really easy for the consumer to understand. I think these radios will be ubiquitous in a few years."

Mr. Roberson said Denon is introducing three add-on car radios at the show, ranging from $400 to $600. The radios won't reach stores until March. Each will have a display that lets stations send information such as call letters or their format -- oldies, news, jazz, whatever.

Like all new technologies, RBDS does face serious hurdles.

"You've got to have the radios out there before stations are going to do this," said John Casey, an engineer for RE America, a Westlake, Ohio, company that sells RBDS to radio stations. "Until now, the manufacturers have been waiting for stations."

His company is one of the RBDS market leaders in Europe, where the system has been in use for several years. Mr. Casey said he thinks the technology will catch on now because of standards set in October by a broad-based group of manufacturers. These standards ensure that all encoders used by radio stations and car radios work together.

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