Continental puts a modern spin on the CB radio

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

‘Listen to this,” the Michigan State Police trooper told me as he turned on a CB radio mounted in his Plymouth Gran Fury police car in 1985. The cop was parking on the side of Interstate 96 outside of Lansing, and demonstrating to me how the state’s new VASCAR II speeder-catching timing device worked.

“There’s a state bear behind the bridge at the 86,” came a truck driver’s voice over the static of the CB radio’s speaker.

“Now they’ll all know we’re here pretty quickly,” explained the cop.

Citizens band radio band became popular with motorists in the 1970s. Truck drivers used the system to warn of traffic hazards and police speed traps, and anyone could listen to the truckers, who often travel in groups called convoys a few miles long. In 1974 a nationwide truckers’ strike caused a stoppage of food and other product deliveries, and the organization of the strike was made possible by the CB communication network. In December 1975 the song “Convoy” was the No. 1 song in the U.S. for a week, popularizing both the truckers’ plights and the CB radio.

CB use waned in the late 1990s and early 21st-century as commercial fleet drivers began to use Nextel-style digital walkie-talkies to talk to colleagues privately from 1993 to 2013 (when that system was canceled). However, when radar speed-trap detectors were outlawed in commercial trucks by the Federal Highway Administration in 1993, CB use by independent truckers boomed again as a way to identify police speed traps. Non-trucker motorists, however, never followed the trend, abandoning CBs in favor of smartphone communication and the app Waze.

“What’s a CB radio?” a young Road & Track editor asked me in 2013, a date I marked as the death of CB for car enthusiasts.

Not so fast. This summer, automotive supplier Continental introduced its VoicR voice communication system it calls “a merger of CB style broadcasting and digital technology,” available as a smartphone app that is aimed at all motorists.

VoicR picks up the ability for a motorist to communicate with anyone else on the road by sending real-time voice messages to a defined location radius. It is subscription-based and unlike CB can handle an unlimited number of channels (CB has 40), including privately specified channels. Continental says its new CB-style radio system enables “a type of swarm intelligence in driver communities.” It works like sending a voice text from short to long ranges.

The company plans to offer the system to commercial drivers and may even add it to truckers’ CB radios, so an Uber driver can spread the word from truckers to other drivers when there’s a traffic jam, and truckers can continue to send voice messages to their dispatchers and other truckers about their progress.

The VoiceR system is available for Android and Apple devices, as well as devices used by fleets, says Johann Hiebl, head of Continental’s Infotainment & Connectivity division. He expects private channels of VoicR to connect car clubs or groups of car travelers, or even carmakers’ branded groups like the Tesla Motors Club.

Like the Waze app, known best for rerouting motorists around traffic congestion, VoicR users can also place-location warning markers where problems and speed traps clog traffic. The messages and markers are available in several VoicR modes:

■Radial Mode: This works just like CB radios, is open for anyone within a specified range, and is available on many channels that the system will scan.

■Private Talk: Families and friends traveling in more than one vehicle can designate a private channel to gab on, similar to those channels on CB radios that are rarely used, except users must be invited.

■Group Mode: Conversations can be extended beyond location limits, so invitees who are not traveling in a group of vehicles can join in on the gossip.

■Branded Mode: If motorists belong to a Dodge Challenger Hellcat club, for example, users can communicate with members of that group they don’t know, similar to how mobile ham radio fans pass time on the highway now. The VoicR system will scan for activity by any group member in any location.