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GM's OnStar inks deal for speech software

The automaker's mobile communications division will purchase text-to-speech software from SpeechWorks.

    General Motors is taking another small technology company for a test drive.

    OnStar, GM's mobile communications division, announced a deal Tuesday to purchase text-to-speech software from Boston-based start-up SpeechWorks.

    The software will eventually help GM translate text-based e-mail, stock quotes, news and sports updates into speech so that drivers do not have to take their eyes off the road to consult a screen or touch pad. SpeechWorks' products, including its flagship Speechify text-to-speech engine, allow people hands-free operation without displays. People can pick from a male or female voice to deliver information in the car.

    OnStar is actively researching text-to-speech software from small technology companies as the division aims to push location-based commercials from banks, gasoline stations, movie theaters and retailers to drivers. So-called push ads, beamed via a wireless network and overriding a driver's stereo system, are becoming part of OnStar's "Virtual Adviser"--an automated, cellular-based concierge service offered as an option on most GM vehicles since January.

    The deal is one of scores that GM has struck up with small software companies looking to gain a foothold in cash-rich, Old Economy players. GM also announced it awarded a $61.6 million contract Tuesday to 2,400-employee Minacs Worldwide, a Markham, Ontario-based software company that provides customer relationship management and technical support.

    SpeechWorks has more than 400 employees and 100 corporate clients, including AOL Time Warner, FedEx and Yahoo. Although the 7-year-old company will concentrate on wireless services for GM, the company provides spoken data for landlines or wireless devices.

    The SpeechWorks deal comes as the automobile and technology industries struggle to come up with standards for the increasingly thorny debate about driver distractions. Although it is tough to find definitive evidence, safety advocates say that touch pads, screens and other devices cause drivers to crash.

    Legislation being considered in 40 states to ban handheld cell phones and other devices while driving has caused automakers to brainstorm for alternatives.

    GM enforces a rigid rule among product developers that if the dashboard has any screen visible to the driver, the screen must be disabled whenever the car is not in park or neutral. The world's largest automaker is betting that voice-activated technology, including voice-based e-mail and stock updates, will eventually replace visual data for use in the automobile.

    Despite GM's rule, industry executives still debate whether onboard communications should be controlled primarily by voice, touch or modified sight--including heads-up displays that flash e-mail or weather updates on the windshield in a see-through manner. Ford plans to release data by the end of the year from driving simulations conducted at its new Virtual Test Track Experiment (Virttex) research lab in Dearborn, Mich.