Telematics isn't dead; it's just taking a nap.. Many automakers, for example, are revving up plans for Bluetooth-equipped phones in their vehicles. Others are pursuing various wireless concepts for in-vehicle navigation. And General Motors hasn't budged on its support of its OnStar Division, despite reports that the division is struggling financially.
The auto industry's won't-get-fooled-again attitude towards certain elements of telematics isn't putting a complete stop to all parts of the market.
In July, for example, Fiat announced that it's partnering with Microsoft on an electronic reference platform that could, in its simplest form, allow customers to use their own Bluetooth-enabled phones inside Fiat vehicles, and to listen to phone calls over a car's audio system. The Italian automaker says that it will apply the platform across its entire product line, from the high-end Alfa Romeo to the low-end Fiat vehicles. Used together with voice recognition software, the platform will enable users to dial by voice command, merely by calling out a name in an electronic phone book. By employing data portals on cell phones, Microsoft executives says that drivers will also be able to link to a Fiat content provider know as bConnect, which will offer such features as real-time traffic reports and off-board navigation.
For Fiat and Microsoft, the partnership is a groundbreaking one, because Microsoft will work directly with Fiat engineers to define the specification, build a reference design, and then hand off the result to a tier-one electronics supplier for manufacture.
Microsoft argues that the new business model will boost the success of automotive telematics, since it brings the company's knowledge of electronic devices to an industry sorely in need of guidance in that area.
"Ford and General Motors are good at building the vehicle brand," notes Peter Wengert, group marketing manager for Microsoft Corp.'s Automotive Business Unit. "And the tier-one suppliers are good at putting electronics in the car. But the piece that they're missing is a software company that's good at looking at customer needs."
Microsoft compares the partnership to its PocketPC business model. While any OEM can use Windows CE on its devices, the PocketPC is described by a defined reference design, the company says.
"Once we finish the Fiat reference design, it will be available for other car companies to look at and use in their vehicles."
While platforms such as Microsoft's are built for more than mere cell phone access, industry engineers believe that they are destined for success primarily because of their inherent cell phone capabilities. Given the widespread use of mobile phones today, they say, and given the increasing pressure from legislators for implementation of hands-free technology, such reference platforms have an immediate place in automobiles.
"The idea is gaining popularity because customers don't need to have a special telematics service provider, or a special embedded phone, or a special phone number, or a special account," says Schumacher of Delphi. "If they have a Bluetooth-enabled phone and a Bluetooth node in their car radio, they can use their regular mobile phone hands-free in their vehicle."
The killer app
Many experts believe, however, that the ultimate telematics application lies, not in hands-free phone usage, but in entertainment.
"Entertainment is the real 'killer app' in telematics," Schumacher says. "With a WiFi connection in the car, users will be able to download rich forms of entertainment, including music, movies, and game software."
Schumacher believes that the use of 802.11 (WiFi) technology will be especially important when small businesses--such as gas stations and food marts--begin to offer wireless downloads of music and video.
"The difference-maker in telematics will occur when you have a whole value stream, an end-to-end solution, that allows entertainment to flow seamlessly into vehicles, without the use of pressed disks, such as DVDs or CDs," Schumacher says. "If you create that solution, digital content can flow almost effortlessly."
Ultimately, the vision is for users to take music and video from their PCs and send it wirelessly to their cars, or to download it at a gas station when they stop for a fill-up. Delphi representatives claim that the infrastructure for such visions is already being put into place at a handful of businesses such as Starbuck's, which have WiFi capabilities today. As such, Delphi is working with electronics suppliers to integrate automotive-quality disk drives and WiFi interface software into next-generation car radios.
"We're taking consumer electronics technology, bullet-proofing it for the severe environment of the vehicle, redesigning the human interface, and writing all the system and application software," Schumacher says.
Delphi executives say that their efforts are being well-received by automakers. Earlier this year, Delphi worked with Ford's Lincoln Division on an advanced audio system with 802.11 WiFi capabilities. The new system is the focal point of a 2004 Lincoln Aviator concept car that employs an overhead rear-seat entertainment system and a Sirius satellite radio stream to bring real-time television and audio entertainment into the vehicle.
"The Aviator's main feature is its ability to connect to a remote computer where you store your digital audio content, such as MP3-based music," says Craig Simonds, vehicle integration team leader in Ford Research. "With this, you could set up your computer so that while you're sleeping, it would wake up the system in your car and download music to it. Then when you got in the car in the morning, your new play lists would come up on your vehicle display."