It's been nearly 20 years since workers started turning downtime into productivity time by using cell phones while stuck in long commutes. Over the years, however, keeping eyes on the road and hands on the wheel has become a big concern, as numerous auto accidents have been linked to cell phone usage by drivers. That's why many states have passed laws demanding that drivers only use cell phones with "hands-free" devices, such as Bluetooth or ear phones.

But now that e-mail and text messaging have become increasingly common ways to communicate, the latest trend for mobile workers is to use gadgets and/or services that can read your text-based correspondence to you in a human-like voice while stuck in daily traffic -- and in some cases, let you reply using your voice, too.

Hardware solutions, like IMS' iLane, or software such as Vlingo and Voice on the Go, operate on text-to-voice technology, in order to help smartphone owners hear e-mail and text messages.

Supply meets demand

While these new products help make rush hour drives more productive, even the experts agree hearing messages (and perhaps verbally replying to them) still might not be a great idea -- the lesser of two evils, if you will.

"It wasn't too long ago we said we could wait until we get home or to the office to make a phone call, but the convenience of mobile phones proved otherwise," says Michael Gartenberg, vice president at Interpret LLC, a market research firm based in New York and Los Angeles.

"And then we said we can wait to read e-mail, but unfortunately, we're seeing people trying to read or type while behind the wheel, which is, needless-to-say, an extremely dangerous habit -- perhaps on par with drinking and driving," Gartenberg adds. So while many people might not like the idea of having your e-mail or texts read aloud while on the highway, these new products available are better than the alternative if it removes the temptation to look down, he adds.

Scott Steinberg, publisher of, agrees. "Products that read your e-mail to you while in the car are indicative of a larger trend in the fast-paced business world today. And that's the need to have information and communication available anytime and anywhere -- instead of being tethered to a PC."

Using these new products and services is "safer than typing while driving, sure, but make no bones about it, it's still a distraction," cautions Steinberg. "You should really keep your eyes and mind on the road, but I'd rather people use these e-mail solutions than glancing down to read or type."

A look at the big players

Because not all products are available for all smartphones, those interested in using one of these solutions might want to first check compatibility, advises Gartenberg.

For example, IMS' iLane only works with Bluetooth-enabled BlackBerry products at this time, while Voice on the Go works with a number of mobile phones.

Gartenberg says once you've confirmed compatibility and assessed costs, you might want to try the technology before you buy to ensure the quality of the audio transcription is accurate. "These new products all work pretty well, for the most part, but the accuracy of the messages might vary, therefore this is definitely a try-before-you-buy scenario," he says

Steinberg has some additional advice: "Keep in mind the context and tone of the e-mail might be misinterpreted when Mr. Roboto reads the e-mail to you, so double-check the message by reading the e-mail yourself later on."

Here's a quick look at a few hands-free e-mail solutions:

  • iLane ($399.99) is a two-part solution: a small black box that plugs into your car's cigarette lighter and a wireless headset for your ear, both of which operate on Bluetooth and work with your BlackBerry. Once set up, the iLane reads your e-mail and text messages to you and also lets you reply, forward, delete or skip to the next message -- all by giving simple voice commands. Replies are sent as MP3 attachments rather than transcribing your voice into text. You can also use your voice to hear your calendar appointments for the day, listen to news clips and weather updates, and more.
  • Available at Handago, where it won a 2009 Champion Award, Voice on the Go ($5.99/month) lets you use your voice to listen to, compose, reply, forward and delete e-mails, and send text messages. Voice on the Go works with virtually any cell phone, requires no training, and is available in six languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Dutch. It's also possible to access your calendar, contacts, Twitter, and Facebook by voice, too.
  • On a related note, Vlingo (; $17.99) is also a software solution that lets you send an e-mail or text messages, make a call, search the Web or update your Facebook or Twitter status -- all using your voice. Vlingo is available for most BlackBerry smartphones, Apple's iPhone, Nokia S60 phones, and many Windows phones.