Project 54, a new voice-recognition system named after the 1960s police television comedy "Car 54, Where Are You?" is on patrol in New Hampshire today, and if a robbery scenario were to occur, officers could keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road instead of fiddling with switches, buttons, dials and microphones as they weave through traffic.
University of New Hampshire engineers started developing the system in 1999 after they witnessed the number of tasks officers perform behind the wheel.
"To pull you over for doing one thing, they have to do 12 different things," engineer Brett Vinciguerra said. "They have to turn the lights on, turn the siren on, figure out where they are, pick up the radio, turn on the video camera, radio in that they are pulling someone over."
After two years of testing, state police have about 75 smart cruisers on patrol, with several more added weekly. UNH and several surrounding communities also use the smarter cars.
A system with similar goals is being developed by Visteon Corp. of Dearborn, Mich. Called TACNET, a prototype is being tested by North Carolina State Police and in Maryland, Michigan and California. It should be on routine patrol this fall, said sales manager Jeff Pauley.
Users of Project 54 say it has transformed radio communications for them. Instead of tapping a button to change channels, an officer now presses a button on the steering wheel – a reprogrammed cruise control switch – and tunes the radio to any community or troop station by calling out its name.
The system uses a variety of standard voice-recognition programs, though officers can still operate equipment by hand.
"Finding your channel out of 256 while you are trying to maneuver around traffic and through traffic can be a little stressful," says New Hampshire State Police Sgt. Mark Liebl, who has driven a smart cruiser for two years as Project 54's main guinea pig.
UNH professor William Lenharth, the lead engineer, remembers the first time he sat in Liebl's cruiser. The front seat was jammed with equipment, and Liebl constantly reached away from the wheel.
"He said, `I just feel around for things,'" Lenharth said. "I'm thinking, 'This is really pretty bad.'"
The system was born out of a New Hampshire tragedy in 1997, when a gunman killed two troopers, a part-time judge, and a newspaper editor in the remote town of Colebrook. As local, state, county, and federal officers from Vermont and New Hampshire tracked the killer, many couldn't talk to each other by radio.
In response, agencies converted to digital systems to transmit voice and data. Adding computers was a logical next step, but with so much equipment already in cruisers, they had to consolidate. The program was helped by $15 million in federal grants.
Liebl said getting driver or criminal records now simplified by hitting the talk button, announcing he wants a license check, and calling the license number into a microphone mounted near the visor. Within eight seconds, the information is retrieved from the cruiser computer, which verbally relays it and displays it on a screen mounted to his right, below the dashboard.
The heart of the UNH system is a small computer in a console between the front seats, with several cigarette-pack-sized control boxes in the trunk that let the computer communicate with the cruiser equipment.
Project 54's team of six faculty members and 14 graduate students continues to work on enhancements. Within a year, the company hopes officers will be able to send messages or turn on cruiser equipment with a handheld device while outside their cars, allowing a wounded officer who might be unable to use a two-way radio to broadcast an automatic emergency message.