Telematics is still considered a new technology in the high-volume automotive world, but it’s rapidly heading toward the mainstream in the off-highway market. Service providers are transforming their strategies as they push technology to reduce costs and trim system sizes.
A flurry of strategic moves so far this year underscore the importance vendors place on this market. The Rugged Telematics Alliance was formed in March by Axeda, LHP Telematics, Hirschmann, Methode Electronics, Morey Corp., ORBCOMM, and Telenor. They quickly rolled out a preconfigured tracking and monitoring unit that will help companies get to market quickly.
“For OEMs, the streamlined solution takes them 85% of the way there and shortens their time to market by 18 to 24 months,” said Jason Carabetta, Vice President of Business Development at ORBCOMM.
In May, T-Mobile made long-time partner and machine-to-machine (M2M) aggregator RACO Wireless its preferred partner for new M2M business and operational support. T-Mobile's John Horn became RACO’s President and many staffers followed him.
Later that month, Verizon Wireless and TeleNav joined to announce TeleNav Asset Tracker. It lets fleet owners monitor the location of assets and manage device properties, with functions such as geographic fencing to ensure that equipment stays within certain boundaries.
This focus on fleet management comes as vendors large and small strive to gain a foothold in what’s expected to be a huge growth market. Substantial growth in automotive applications is helping expand the infrastructure and provide volumes that will help reduce pricing. Many major players see telematics as an area worthy of investment.
“Telematics is definitely one of the biggest opportunities in the machine-to-machine market,” said Sai Yagnyamurthy, Open Development Manager for Verizon Wireless. “There are 10 million or more cars sold each year, they’re all a future market.”
Some of this investment is coming because cellular providers have achieved a saturation point, where nearly every person who wants a cell phone has one. To continue to grow, many are turning to transportation. In this area, off-highway users are a bit ahead of passenger cars. They have been leaders in fleet management, as have on-highway fleets. When all these trends are combined, it adds up to a solid market.
“Off-highway will be a huge part of our business,” RACO’s Horn said. “We’ll support all sorts of vehicle and container tracking and we have partners who are in related fields like diagnostics.”
Engineering staffs have been working furiously to support these business strategies. As with most electronics, there’s always a push to cut costs by combining functions. One approach is to put GPS receivers in telematic boxes instead of rarely separate modules.
“Telematics and GPS are included in many telematic head units,” Yagnyamurthy said. “Given how cheap the modules are now, it’s a simple add-on to a communications module.”
This focus on integration is driving an increased focus on standards that make it easier to mix and match components. That ripples out to antennas, which must work with a range of products.
“Our antennas have integrated receivers/transceivers and an industry standard interface to communicate with onboard control units. This helps to speed up the product integration,” said Ralf Duersch, Director of Business Development, Hirschmann Car Communication.
Cellular providers are also packaging the subscriber identity module (SIM) so it can be integrated into radio head units. That should improve reliability over conventional SIM cards that must be inserted into connectors. “We’ve created an embedded SIM that goes directly onto a circuit board, so it can handle a lot of heat and vibration,” Horn said.
Wherever the telematic links are located, they must also be tied to the vehicle’s networks so they can monitor operations and gather data. Standardization around CAN and the onboard diagnostics port makes it easy to create a single module for global use.
Another way to trim costs is to limit connection times. That’s often achieved by aggregating data and limiting the number of transmissions, storing data in flash memory that may be on the microcontroller. For many vehicles, one or two connections a day will suffice.
“On the hardware side, advances in onboard processing power and memory capacity management are allowing OEMs to get more valuable engine/machine data (and data from other sources) collected and processed on the hardware before it is sent over-the-air via cellular or satellite carriers. This lowers the costs of airtime,” said Tony Woodall, Morey’s Marketing Vice President.