Sitting atop the dashboard, she speaks in the same melodic, robotic voice as a GPS.

But this device tattles.

"Reduce speed now," she says, her screen turning red. "Text message will be sent if speeding continues."

It's only a demonstration, but soon, technology developed at the University of Minnesota could keep an electronic eye on teen drivers.

If they speed? Mom and Dad get a text. Don't fasten their seat belts? Car won't shift into drive. Fill their car with friends? Parents find out within seconds.

The researchers believe that technology is one key to reining in rogue drivers and preventing the kinds of crashes that killed 11 people last weekend.

"We'd like to change teens' behavior before they become the next statistics," said Max Donath, director of the U's Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute.

Devices exist that monitor speed or seat belts or cell phone use, but the U's technology -- called the Teen Driver Support System -- goes well beyond that.

"It is the first holistic system to be built and tested by any university or private company," said Michael Manser, director of the institute's HumanFIRST Program.

This month, researchers will test-drive their latest model on parents and teens in Washington and Dakota counties, which have the state's biggest numbers of teen driver fatalities.

"We want to make sure it's usable," Manser said. For example: "How often do parents really want to get text messages?"

Based on that feedback, the U will tweak the technology and later recruit families to use it for a few months. They hope that eventually, the technology will come with the car -- or be offered as a low-cost add-on.

Smart phones and keys

The first prototype, developed in 2006 with some funding from the state and federal departments of transportation, was a complicated, clunky, computer-based device that had to be installed in a car.

Now, the sleek system is based, mainly, on a cell phone. Smart phones contain much of the technology needed: GPS, accelerometers, texting capabilities. Just add seat belt and passenger sensors and some intricate programming.

For example, a teen gets into the driver's seat and inserts her personal key. The system uses that key to recognize her, a newly licensed driver. If she's not allowed by law to have multiple passengers in her car, the system knows it and sends a warning her way.

"One unauthorized passenger," her cell phone says. She puts the car into drive anyway. The system sends a text, including a date, time and this: "Unauthorized passenger detected. Road: University Avenue near 14th St."

Texts are then gathered online and displayed in Google Maps, so the parent knows when and where problems occurred.

Parents still in driver's seat

The technology will never replace parents, and the U researchers aren't trying.

"We just make sure they get the text. The consequence is up to them -- as it should be," said Alec Gorjestani, a research fellow and the project's technical lead.

But it does give parents more information about how risky -- or how safe -- their teen is on the road.

"Most parents give their kid the keys and pray nothing happens," Manser said. "Now the parents can get a little insight into their teen's driving behaviors."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168