Telematic takeoff comes with many questions

  • 16-Sep-2010 08:52 EDT

1 Telematics systems from Continental will gather data from many sources, using both embedded hardware and cell phones.

There’s little question that telematics is poised for a major expansion, both in the number of equipped vehicles and the services that drivers can expect. Though this market growth is already under way, there are still questions about communications techniques, driver distraction, and government’s role.

Though many consumers are still unsure what telematics is, or why they might want it, there’s no question that many groups are already anxious to start reaping the benefits that come when vehicles can transmit data on their health and whereabouts.

“Data from the vehicle has high value for automakers, insurers, and to ensure Environmental Protection Agency compliance,” said Erik Goldman, President of Hughes Telematics. “The EPA sees a lot of low-hanging fruit when they’re looking at improving the performance of out-of-compliance vehicles.”

These types of information are already bringing benefits. General MotorsOnStar has earned kudos for using diagnostic data, e-mailing owners alerts when servicing is needed. Insurance companies are beginning to use input to determine rates, and fleet owners are providing regulatory bodies with data on vehicle emissions.

As telematics expands its role, one of the big questions is how to send and receive data. One camp supports what’s commonly called the Ford Sync model, which leverages users' cell phones. The alternative uses the technical approach used by OnStar, relying on telematics hardware embedded in the vehicle.

Many observers feel that a hybrid approach will emerge, using an embedded link to transmit diagnostic data back to OEMs' dealers and sending safety alerts out when accidents occur. Most of these hybrid models predict that the cell phone will be used for infotainment, handling tasks like streaming music and handling a number of user-selected apps that have been approved for vehicle use.

However, there will be many areas of overlap. Vehicle makers will probably want to offer services that use the embedded hardware for some infotainment services. Infotainment offers a chance to bring in revenue while also letting the vehicle’s communications system play a role in the fun-to-drive yardstick.

“You don’t want consumers to say that the embedded device is not relevant,” said Robert Gee, Product Line Manager for Connected Systems and Services at Continental’s Automotive Interior Division. “Carmakers will have to determine what is interesting enough to embed so drivers don’t reach for their mobile phone every time they want to access the outside world.”

Safety inside

Though some telematics systems use the cell phone for safety, calling 911 when airbags deploy, there’s a growing consensus that safety-related communications must be handled by embedded technology. That approach, mandated in Europe’s eCall regulations, eliminates problems that can arise with cell phones.

“Safe journey programs have to be embedded in vehicles,” said Thilo Koslowski, Automotive Vice President for Gartner Inc. “They can’t be tied to a cell phone that has dead batteries or was forgotten in the morning rush.”

Developers are also stretching the definition of safety. When vehicles can get real-time updates, telematics systems can provide drivers with information that could help prevent accidents. Drivers can avoid bottlenecks by taking alternate routes, eliminating the frustration that comes with traffic congestion while also reducing their time on the road.

Drivers can also be alerted when roads are icy or children are more likely to be present. “A lot of driver information, like information on traffic incidents, road conditions, or something that says school just let out, can be safety related,” Gee said.

Providing this sort of data with embedded systems won’t stress hardware capabilities. These functions don’t send or receive much data, so it won’t have the same requirements as streaming music or games. “Safety, security, and diagnostics don’t really depend on increasing bandwidth; they consume minimal amounts,” Goldman said.

However, gathering data and making sense of it will bring substantial computing demands. Systems will have to determine how traffic is flowing to help drivers avoid congestion, and weather data could be combined with data from electronic stability control systems to warn drivers about icing.

Some of this could come from servers, while other input could be sent from vehicle to vehicle. Though the benefits could be great, there’s still concern over how to jump-start this sort of data gathering. One central requirement will be a common communication technique for data that is tied to traffic flow and inter-vehicle communications.

“When vehicles get information from the outside, whether it’s from the infrastructure or other vehicles, the systems can have a better sense of what’s going on,” Koslowski said. “But making this happen will require an investment in infrastructure, which will have to be standardized. The infrastructure will probably need government intervention.”

While the government is likely to play a role by requiring communication technology and driving standards, the role of legislators always comes with serious questions. Foremost among them is government’s ongoing role in this data gathering.

“The question is: Can you offer something that consumers will pay for, or should government gather data and dispense it,” said John Horn, National Director of Machine to Machine Communications for T-Mobile. “In the latter, people are nervous about privacy, so there’s an opportunity there."

Let me entertain you

Though improved safety and diagnostics provide a solid base for telematics, infotainment will be the driver that will determine how quickly consumers latch onto this new facet of vehicle electronics. Cell phones are expected to play a major role here, providing a way to bring in apps that are designed specifically for vehicles.

That focus on vehicles is a significant change from the many apps already available for phones. A key differentiator is the need for safety. Most vehicle developers are planning to limit apps that can be tied to vehicle systems.

Some of these approved apps will be versions of existing cell-phone programs, while others will be designed specifically for vehicles. That will protect vehicle systems from failures that could be caused by malware or simple conflicts within programs.

The facets of the program that block unauthorized apps from tapping into vehicle networks will also block viruses and other malicious software. At the same time, it will be much harder for hackers to come up with free apps that mimic the capabilities of programs provided by authorized companies.

“Hacking into a car is much harder than hacking into a cell phone; there’s much more complexity in automotive electronics,” Gee said.

This limited access may also change the pricing structure for apps. Many commercial apps are free, but there is high likelihood that a greater percentage of vehicle programs will come with a fee. This could help address a central question surrounding telematics—where profits can be realized.

“Manufacturers really need to create apps stores. They can be revenue centers, not cost centers,” Horn said. “Companies could get substantial revenues with applications that are truly relevant to drivers.”

Safety first

Though there is a lot of interest in apps for vehicles, there is at least an equal interest in coming up with a human machine interface (HMI) that keeps driver distraction to a minimum. The more things drivers do with telematics, the greater chance that it will take their attention away from driving. That’s prompting a lot of concern about the likelihood of government intervention that could curtail growth.

“The applications that people hope to offer that will enable more cell phone use in the vehicle may be a distraction for drivers,” Koslowski said. “Everyone’s looking forward to a big party with a new market, but the industry has to figure out a way to make it happen safely or the government will step in and dictate what happens at the party.”

However, he noted that automakers that develop an easy way to interact with telematics will have a highly marketable technology. When several service providers offer apps and other services to any driver with a telematics link, this user interface could give automakers a significant market edge.

“The HMI will become a major differentiator; carmakers won’t be able to differentiate with services,” Koslowski said.

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