Toyota to introduce Safety Connect, upgrade Lexus Enform

  • 13-Feb-2009 10:04 EST

Depressing the SOS button on the overhead console of Toyota and Lexus models will call the ATX center for roadside assistance or emergency help.

Toyota will roll out a new U.S. vehicle telematics program inspired by the G-Book program it has been developing for Japan. Called Toyota Safety Connect, the cellular-based system will be a factory-installed, dealer-activated option on select Toyota models. It will be standard equipment—along with a dealer-activated upgrade called Enform—on some Lexus models with navigation systems, starting with the HS-250 h luxury hybrid.

As they unfold this summer, the two will provide several of the features currently offered by General Motors' OnStar, which has been the service provider for Lexus Link. OnStar will continue to service "legacy" subscribers with Lexus Link, but the new systems will use a call center system from ATX Group, which also has North American contracts for BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Maybach, and Rolls-Royce cars.

Safety Connect and Enform will have, as with Lexus Link, dedicated operators with trilingual capability (English, French, and Spanish). Safety Connect uses a single button, labeled SOS, also used by other companies with ATX-based systems.

A key reason cited for the change from OnStar was to use the G-Book expertise that Toyota has been working on since 1996, and to provide close control of the system design, as Toyota already has been responsible for installation, even crash-testing of the OnStar module. In addition, Toyota believes it would better be able to engineer for proprietary feature content and ensure a closer relationship with customers, said Jon Bucci, Vice President for Advanced Technology at Toyota Motor Sales. He cited vehicle-specific content for owners, plus improved technical service feedback and a more seamless handoff from the call center to Toyota/Lexus customer service, both of which OnStar provides to GM.

Safety Connect includes road service, automatic crash notification when the airbags deploy or the vehicle is involved in a severe rear-end collision, emergency assistance, and stolen vehicle location. Enform adds Destination Assist, which uses a second button (or voice command or a touch pad on the navigation screen) to call the ATX center for turn-by-turn directions, similar to GM's version of OnStar. Destination Assist can include Zagat-rated restaurants in its guidance.

The Lexus Enform subscriber also can access a special Internet website to preprogram a route with a list of up to 200 stops and transmit them via the Internet to the car. Toyota views this feature as useful for real-estate agents and other salespeople. To modify the route in real time, the driver just calls Destination Assist and asks the operator.

Enform also will feature Lexus Insider, offering broadcasts on the navigation screen of Lexus-oriented subjects including invitations to dealer events for Lexus owners.

The Lexus system will have remote diagnosis capability, Bucci said, and also will monitor odometer and oil counter readings. Unless the owner opts out, diagnostic information and oil change/maintenance reminders will be sent to the navigation system but not shared with the car dealer at this time. Product quality teams at Lexus will be able to study the diagnostic data.

A decision on tire-pressure monitoring has not yet been made, he said. Remote diagnosis eventually may be offered on Toyotas with Safety Connect, he continued.

However, such "signature" OnStar features as remote door unlock and stolen vehicle slowdown (by remote control of the throttle on police request) will not be offered, Bucci said. Owner surveys showed minimal interest, he said, because of the difficulty of locking the car with the currently used smartkey keyless fob inside.

An alternative to the OnStar stolen vehicle slowdown someday might be a feature available on some G-Book systems in Japan: in-cabin camera that at police request can take a photo of the driver and transmit it to police headquarters.

Enform features conversational voice recognition from VoiceBox Technologies. It can understand and respond correctly to such commands as "make it cooler" or "change the satellite radio station to number 77" even if accompanied by "uhs" and "ums." The VoiceBox software made its Toyota debut for onboard comfort and infotainment systems on the 2010 Lexus RX crossovers.

If a Lexus has activated XM satellite radio, Enform can provide live traffic updates and rerouting around problem areas in 77 U.S. cities, live weather updates in 150 cities, and owner-selected reports on stocks and sporting events.

A hands-free "browse-by-voice" Internet-anywhere access system, including e-mailing, still is in the development stage for all vehicle manufacturers. ATX has demonstrated a cellular-based Internet system plus text-messaging. The company participates in an initiative by the Connected Vehicle Trade Association to develop SAE standards for Internet use in the car without affecting safe operation.

A Toyota employees-operated fleet is beta-testing the systems now, Bucci said. Although no pricing has been announced, he said the subscriptions might be as low as half that of Lexus Link. There will be a one-year free subscription for both Safety Connect and Enform. Lexus Link is a $900 option, including a one-year subscription and 30 minutes of cell phone time, plus $200 for optional turn-by-turn directions. Renewals are $199 (plus $399 for turn-by-turn directions).

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