We're entering a brave new world of connectivity with our vehicles. Mobile computing and wireless telecommunications technologies promise to increase our productivity, improve safety, and keep us entertained not only from our car's dashboard and backseat video monitors, but also from our homes and offices. The technology behind these telematics systems is viable right now — the question is when, at what price point, and in what suite of applications they will be available to the mass market.

"We're rolling out a business model where it makes sense to put telematics in every vehicle and to have that telematics capability be alive, awake, and working, whether there's a subscription associated with it or not," said Erik Goldman, president of Hughes Telematics, owners of Networkcar, a provider of vehicle GPS tracking and diagnostic monitoring. "The OEMs are marching in that direction, and we will see that in the next few years."

Hughes Telematics is owned by Hughes Communications, one of the largest providers of consumer and enterprise satellite services in the world. The company has engineered a demonstration vehicle with its communications technology and has agreements with Chrysler and Mercedes to install its components for the 2010 model-year. The company is in talks with other manufacturers as well, Goldman said.

"We have a pretty aggressive road map of services that we see bringing to the auto industry over the next few years," said Goldman.

Many of the functions installed in the demonstration vehicle are already available in Networkcar's suite of applications for fleets or in other product offerings from other service providers. (See coverage of Ford Work Solutions, Chrysler's uconnect, and GM's OnStar later in this article.)

Goldman says Hughes' goal is to have these systems perform in concert as a complete package from the factory, using voice recognition, and make them viable for the mass market. Goldman sat down with Fleet Financials to comment on the blue sky of in-vehicle communications.


Connecting to Your Car

Think of the LCD screen in the middle of the dashboard as you would a home computer screen on a network, Goldman said.

Those screens have traditionally been single-purpose, such as controlling the air conditioning or navigation system. This in-dash computer is used now to manage a full range of services, from navigation, cell phone, and satellite radio to vehicle diagnostics, Web service, back-office document access, and even onboard car manuals with video instructions.


Dashboard on Your Desktop

A businessperson will soon be able to manage the vehicle and configure services from a computer desktop via cell phone networks and satellite.

Already a function of most aftermarket vehicle tracking systems used in commercial applications, this functionality is coming down to the single-user level in the form of a personalized Web portal. Through this computer "dashboard," fleet managers monitor location, speed, idle time, fuel economy, route, oil change intervals, tire pressure, and engine trouble codes with a few mouse clicks.

Exception reports — for example, when a driver hits 90 mph — can be sent to a cell phone or e-mail address.


Downloading Software

Car manufacturers will be able to update onboard software remotely. For recalls involving software patches, this means drivers won't have to bring cars in for service. If a manufacturer must recall a specific model, that group of owners could be easily notified through their cars' connections.

Further, with the owner's permission, a carmaker could use the integrated system to collect performance data for research and development, Goldman said.


Calculating Your Route

Navigation systems such as the latest version of OnStar allow owners to send routes straight from their computer to their cars. The next step, according to Goldman, is for the telematics system to suggest the best route before the driver gets in the car by looking at such data as traffic reports and construction delays. The system could also monitor cheap gas and provide directions to that station.

In a business application, when a new order comes in, a fleet manager can push a new route to a driver on the fly.


Surfing the Net

In-vehicle Wi-Fi capability is available now, but its uses in the car have just begun to be tapped.

"You can kind of let your imagination run and think about all the value propositions that can be delivered to a consumer through a communications link that's part of a broader transaction," Goldman said.

In the commercial world, a washing machine repair person can download a manual using his in-vehicle Wi-Fi and connect to his laptop with Bluetooth.


Searching in Real-Time

Voice-recognition technology has been historically disappointing, Goldman said, because the system must remember very structured commands. Hughes is demonstrating new technology called conversational voice recognition. "It's effortless — you just start talking without a predefined structure to your language," he noted.

This technology can be used in the vehicle for voice-based, real-time, Google-like searches. For instance, a driver looking for a restaurant to hold a business lunch can audibly query the car's computer: "What Italian restaurants are within five minutes?"

The computer might return five restaurant options that will populate the screen on a map. The driver can choose a restaurant and perhaps even get specific information such as daily specials or a wait time for tables, Goldman says. After a restaurant is chosen, the driver can voice-direct the vehicle to calculate the route.

Contractors in need of a specific type of building material, for instance, might query for lumber yards in the vicinity, price the product, and then make sure it is in stock before calculating a route.


Smart Intersections

Not specific to the Hughes test vehicle — but a major safety advancement in the works — are systems that allow cars to warn each other of impending danger.

Vehicles equipped with onboard sensors will detect hazards such as fog, black ice, or obstacles on the road such as broken-down vehicles, and use WLAN-based (wireless local area network) radio technology to transmit and receive the details to nearby cars. These early warnings enable drivers to adapt their speed and prepare for the danger.

Other uses could involve the car communicating with traffic lights. In an adaptive signal control system in intersections, information from oncoming cars is used to adjust the timing of traffic lights according to traffic patterns.

Ford has been testing a form of this technology through a joint public-private effort with cities and other manufacturers known as Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership (CAMP).

Ford set up a "smart intersection" in Dearborn, Mich. that can warn drivers of potentially dangerous traffic situations, such as when a vehicle is about to run a red light. The intersection is outfitted with technology that can monitor traffic signal status, GPS data, and digital maps to assess potential hazards and then transmit the information to vehicles.

Once the in-vehicle computer receives the data indicating a potential hazard, the vehicle's collision avoidance system may be able to determine whether the car will safely cross the intersection or if it must stop. If the system senses the driver is not decelerating quickly enough, driver visual and audio warnings are activated.


Fitting it All Together

If these services are to catch on with the mass market, simplicity and personalization are paramount. "If we present consumers with all these applications and they're not easy to use then, they won't use them," Goldman said.

Voice recognition technology is a key part of that, he said. As well, when a driver provisions goods or services through the car, the computer (and the supplier) will remember the order and create a profile for future purchases.

"There's a whole economy that revolves around Web," Goldman said. "After initiating that search, chances are it's going to lead to a transaction. The advertiser is going to pay for being a part of that, especially if the driver followed through on that purchase."

Does this represent a new marketing channel? Surely — and perhaps a new term, "vehicle spam." Nonetheless, this new way to reach a captive audience will be a key driver of the technology's implementation. And it's happening soon.

"We're on the cusp of getting this into cars at price points that make it all work," said Goldman. "It's not science fiction; it's available today. By 2012, these functions will be prevalent. In 2015 I think they will be commonplace." ■