Special Report: Automotive Telematics Defined -
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Special Report: Automotive Telematics Defined

Telematics can make driving safer, and hopefully less traumatic when a problem arises

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Telematics is a term that describes all the electronic communications and “infotainment” on today’s high-tech vehicles.

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According to Motorola, the company that coined the term, telematics is “an automotive communications technology that combines wireless voice and data to provide location-specific security, information, productivity and in-vehicle entertainment services to drivers and their passengers.”

GM’s OnStar is a perfect example of what telematics is all about. OnStar provides navigation information, emergency help (they will call 911 if they detect a vehicle’s airbags have gone off, then direct the first responders to the vehicle’s location using its GPS location), emergency roadside assistance, vehicle security (they can unlock your car remotely, and on newer models even partially disable the vehicle should it be reported stolen), hands free calling, and vehicle maintenance reminders.

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Ford’s new SYNC technology on selected 2008 models adds yet another direction to telematics. SYNC is a fully integrated, voice-activated in-car communication and entertainment system that allows your car to talk to a Bluetooth enabled cell phone, iPod or MP3 music player.

There’s nothing to plug-in. The vehicle talks to the device via Bluetooth wireless, connects to the device and then gives you the ability to operate any of these devices using simple voice commands. It’s simple, easy-to-use and hands-free. You can listen to whatever tunes you’ve downloaded on your music player, check your email, ask for directions or even find the nearest gas station with the lowest fuel prices (which I tested first-hand at a recent Midwest Automotive Media Association event in southern Wisconsin).

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The SYNC system in the 2009 Mercury SUV I saw had a touch screen display that could also be controlled by voice commands alone. When asked to find the cheapest nearby gas, the SYNC generated a list of stations with distances within seconds. The SYNC system uses GPS navigation to establish where the vehicle is, then communicates via its Sirius satellite link to sift through a database of real time credit card transactions at local gas stations. From this, it generates a list that can be categorized by nearest location, lowest price or brand. Pretty cool!

So what does telematics mean to the aftermarket? Lots of opportunities. Aftermarket GPS navigation systems are selling like hotcakes these days, and it won’t be long before these devices will offer more than simple directions and road maps. Some can also play music and display photos and videos.

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So as GPS technology and mobile phone technology merge, the lines that distinguish one type of device from another will continue to blur.

Pretty soon, these devices will be talking to nearby businesses as you’re driving along to help you find virtually anything you’re looking for. A GPS can give you directions to a local restaurant or any other business, but soon they may be able to give you real-time info on today’s menu specials.

One of the drawbacks of all this new communications technology is that it erodes personal privacy. Two-way GPS communications means that not only do you know your exact location, but so does anybody else who has access to your GPS signal. There are already products that allow parents to track the whereabouts of their teenage drivers when they take the family car out for the evening.

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Tollway transponders that automatically deduct a toll from your account as you drive past a roadside collection point are used in many states. Most of these devices do not use GPS tracking, but they do record the time and location of each toll collected. This kind of information has already been used in numerous criminal and civil trials to prove or disprove someone’s whereabouts. It’s no different than your mobile phone provider keeping a record of every call you make. So be careful. Big Brother is listening and watching.

Privacy issues aside, telematics can make driving safer, and hopefully less traumatic when a problem arises. If your Check Engine light comes on, or your vehicle breaks down, your vehicle may be able to communicate your problem to a repair facility for remote diagnosis.

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They may be able to come back and tell you what’s wrong with your car, how much it will cost to fix it, and when your car will be fixed. OnStar can already detect fault codes, tell you what the code means, and schedule a service appointment at your GM dealer. But they can’t fix your car remotely — at least not yet. That day may come if the “fix” is to download new calibration or operating instructions to your engine’s onboard computer or other module.

It’s hard to predict what the future holds for telematics. But one thing’s for sure. The technology isn’t standing still. It’s going to offer more features, more integration and more communication.

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