DURHAM, N.H. - A police officer sees a bank robbery suspect speed by and says ‘‘pursuit.’’ Automatically, the cruiser’s blue lights, siren, flashing headlights and video camera turn on. The car also sends a message to dispatch giving the location and saying the officer is chasing someone.
This voice-recognition system is not a prototype — it’s on patrol in New Hampshire today, and if the 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.
It’s called Project 54, after the 1960s police television comedy ‘‘Car 54, Where Are You?’’ and its global positioning system even answers the show title’s question.
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.
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.
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.
The heart of the UNH system is a small computer in a console between the front seats, with several cigarettepack-sized control boxes in the trunk that let the computer communicate with the cruiser equipment.
Most of the hardware can be bought off the shelf at electronics and other stores for about $4,000, Lenharth said.
Lenharth plans to license the software to police agencies for a couple hundred dollars and hopes a police-equipment maker will step in to massproduce the controllers.
Project 54’s team of six faculty members and 14 graduate students continues to work on enhancements.
Within a year, Vinciguerra said, officers will be able to send messages or turn on cruiser equipment with a handheld device while outside their cars. That would, for instance, allow a wounded officer who might be unable to use a two-way radio to broadcast an automatic emergency message.
Such a device might have saved a life in the 1997 New Hampshire incident that prompted Project 54, as one mortally wounded trooper sought shelter in a field when another drove up and was killed before he knew what was happening.