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Future car - telematics gains traction

By: By James Dobson

Date: Sunday, 17. June 2007

Safety and security - that was the common theme connecting many of the lectures and panel discussions at the Telematics Detroit 2007 conference, held on May 22 and 23. The conference brought together stakeholders from across the automotive telematics industry: automotive manufacturers, wireless carriers, device manufacturers, telematics service providers, and electronics suppliers. It gave attendees the opportunity to network and valuable insights into current and future industry trends.

Telematics, the combination of location information with machine-to-machine communications, has been a hot topic for more than a decade, but has not started to gain traction until recently. It had been hoped that one or two products would come along that would gain widespread acceptance and drive the adoption of further technologies - but don't hold your breath, says Sascha Simon of Mercedes Benz USA: "there is no killer app."

While there may be no killer application, safety and security form the "cornerstone of telematics," says Kevin Link, VP and co-founder of HUGHES Telematics. This includes technologies like theft recovery systems and automatic crash notification (ACN), which is the "ticket to entry" for in-vehicle telematics, according to Michael Marshall of J.D. Power and Associates. Consumers feel that safety features should be standard on all automobiles, says Marshall. This will help encourage the growth of ACN.

Also driving its growth is legislation: the eCall initiative, a pan-European automatic emergency call system, will be standard equipment in all new vehicles entering the market after September 2010. After vehicle sensors detect a crash, the eCall module will initiate a voice call to the nearest emergency centre. Additionally, a data connection will be established, allowing the vehicle's precise location and identifying information to be transmitted to the emergency operator. Should the system be unable to establish a voice connection or the occupants unable to speak, the data packet ensures that emergency services will still be able to respond in a timely fashion. It is projected that the system will reduce injury severity by 15% and reduce traffic fatalities in the EU by as much as 2500 people annually.

There are a variety of technologies that can be used to determine one's position. GPS uses a special radio receiver that picks up the transmissions of dedicated satellites. The received signals are processed to figure out the distance between the radio and every satellite whose transmission can be detected. Since the location of each satellite is known to a high degree of precision, the GPS receiver can triangulate its position with 15 metre resolution or better.

Unfortunately, GPS isn't at its best in dense urban areas, where a receiver's view of the sky is limited. Also, GPS receivers represent an added cost for device manufacturers. That's why companies like TruePosition have developed technologies that use the cellphone network to locate a device. According to Brian Varano, Manager of Marketing Communications at TruePosition, the company "got its start creating wireless location technology primarily to meet the needs of the FCC E911 mandate," which specifies that the position of a 911 caller's phone should be sent to the emergency operator. TruePosition's U-TDOA (Uplink Time Difference of Arrival) technology can pinpoint the location of any mobile phone to an accuracy of better than 50 metres, works well in urban areas, and doesn't require any special hardware in the phone itself, making it an ideal method of supporting E911.

Wireless carriers may have been mandated to install location hardware, but they're discovering that the capital costs of supporting E911 are offset by new revenue streams: once the hardware has been paid for, services can be added cheaply in software.

This progression provides a glimmer of hope for the future of automotive telematics. The hardware infrastructure needed to enable telematics has been a long time coming, but consumer and government demands for safety and security are finally driving its development. The location and communications infrastructure developed as a result of this push will serve a secondary, but ultimately much more important purpose: it will allow the long-standing promises of the telematics industry to be realized, irrevocably changing our relationship with the automobile.

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Doug in Vancouver,


Good stuff! Sounds like a good conference. Can't wait for all these technologies to finally converge... someday.

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