Downtown company customizes cars for the information superhighway

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June 7, 2004 // UPDATED 1:52 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Tom Carothers
Tom Carothers

Do cell-phone-wielding drivers wig you out? Get ready for the guy with a computer keyboard, PC games and Microsoft Word in his dashboard.

At first glance it looks unassuming enough, like a typical dashboard car stereo. However, a push of a button reveals a display screen and a world of multimedia functions at the driver's fingertips.

In this case, the driver is Alex Huff and the screen connects his car to a torrent of computer toys: Wireless Internet, DVD player, Global Positioning System, XM satellite radio, MP3 music, PC games ... even Microsoft Word.

The result is a car made for the information superhighway -- the "Truman Mobile." Downtown-based Blue Turtle Consulting markets the $1,949 Truman Mobile X system that turned Huff's Nissan Altima into a hotspot on wheels.

"It's actually something that people have a bit of a time with at first -- that we can take something like that and put it in their car," Huff said, pointing at a desktop computer at his 212 11th Ave. S. offices.

The "dashboard computer" features many components to make road trips pass by with ease.

"We've got music -- storage is not an issue, playlists are not an issue -- it's all programmable and customizable," Huff said, toggling through function after function. "With the Global Positioning System, it will tell me where I am and how to get to where I am going."

With the tap of a few buttons on his remote -- yes, there's a remote -- "The Lord of the Rings" plays crystal clear just above the gearshift knob.

"There's also a full keyboard and a mouse located on the remote if someone wants to play around," he says, pulling a sleek black wireless keyboard out from under his seat.

With a click of a button, a soothing voice began to read from the Word document displayed from where Gandalf was casting spells only a moment earlier.

"I've been able to spell-check my own words using this," Huff said, explaining the system's text-to-speech function. "As I'm listening, I can tell if I messed up my typing because the computer will really trip over a misspelling."

With great enthusiasm, he explains how a car's occupant could rifle through his or her e-mail.

By now, you may be blind with rage imagining reckless cell-phone-using drivers taken to a Dilbertesque level. Relax. Huff notes that only passengers should check e-mail when the car is in motion, and most of the computer gizmos should be used when the driver is pulled over (then again, so should a cell phone).

After safely pulling over himself, Huff opened his trunk to show where it all comes from: a breadbox-sized apparatus affixed just behind the trunk hood. A 1 Ghz processor with a 30 GB hard drive and 256MB of memory -- the stuff of an average notebook computer -- runs the system. Perhaps most important to a Minnesota driver, the gear is temperature-resistant.

"In the winters, the hard drives weren't working very well because of the cold," he said. "We ended up finding a local company that produces these film heaters and we attached these pieces of film with thermostats on them so that when the temperature got cold enough, the heater would kick on so that when started up it would not go 'blech.'"

The unit is DC-powered with a low-power drain, meaning that it will connect directly with an automobile's power source without an adaptor and also will not overtax the car battery.

"The power actually runs independently, so I can have it running without the car running," he said.

The Truman Mobile is named for Huff's business partner and system creator Truman (T.J.) Kellie. The first system was created in May 2002 after the two had experimented with a similar entertainment system for the home.

"We just figured that there were so many more ways you could go with this in a car. There's many more features and hardware available now than when we first started this," he said.

Who wants all this stuff?

Huff admitted his surprise at who his clientele has been up to now. He figured they would be the "BMW driving-type, always on the go," that most customers are those looking to customize their vehicles to the hilt.

Instead, "we're getting a lot of people with the $8,000 Honda Civic who have spent $25,000 customizing it," Huff said. "And a lot of people who are buying it are wanting the [add-on] diagnostics programming where the computer will talk to the engine and give a sort of constant tune-up."

(Most sales have been to drivers on the east or west coasts; Huff will only say that "fewer than 100" have been sold.)

Huff noted that one of the main advantages of the Truman Mobile system was that as new technologies become available, a user could simply upgrade components instead of having to purchase a new system.

"You don't buy the components as units, so when things change--and god knows technology does -- you don't have to start over," he said.

With a tip of the hat to the car-customizing crowd, Huff said he was looking at ways to try to get the Truman Mobile featured on MTV's popular "Pimp My Car" program where participant's automobiles are given automotive makeovers.

"I was watching it the other day and they had put a DVD and an X-Box system into this person's car," he said. "I'm thinking, that's great, but it's nothing compared to what our system could do."