Despite a firestorm of controversy over driver-distraction issues, and despite the fact that automakers are still struggling to find a way to make money with telematics, experts say that cell phones will play a huge role in the future of the automobile.
"The New York state cell phone ban was great news for telematics makers," said Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst for Gartner Dataquest (San Jose, Calif.). "It meant that the technologies they are working on, such as speech recognition and text-to-speech, will have more support in the future."
Indeed, software and hardware vendors are hard at work on telematics systems that offer hands-free operation, mainly because such products are believed to be the answer to cell phone legislation in almost every state. For example, the OnStar Division of General Motors has already sold more than 2 million embedded, hands-free, in-car phone systems, and the Chrysler Group recently announced plans to produce an in-vehicle system that would allow customers to use their portable cell phones, hands-free, inside their cars. Both systems are expected to be a boon for in-car phone sales.
A wealth of information about telematics and driver-distraction issues will be reviewed at this week's Digital Car Conference & Exhibition in Detroit, held in collaboration with the Society of Automotive Engineers Conference.
Still, much engineering remains if such products are to be successful. Automotive vendors must first create voice recognition systems capable of operating reliably in the face of wind noise, road noise, blaring radios and little voices in the back seat. They must find ways to tie cell phones to radios and navigation systems, and draw up standards that would enable any brand of cell phone to dock in any vehicle, without loss of performance. What's more, engineers must find ways to integrate the Bluetooth short-range networking technology into automobiles, especially if visions such as Chrysler's universal cell phone architecture are to bloom.
In this week's Focus section, automotive vendors examine driver distraction. Contributors Phil Shinn, speech scientist at HeyAnita Inc., and Alan Schwartz, vice president of business development at SpeechWorks (Los Angeles), discuss some techniques employed by software companies to improve speech recognition in a noisy environment. "The day is not far off when drivers will be able to talk to a speech service and keep their eyes on the road, instead of looking down to fumble with a cell phone or MP3 player," they write.
Meanwhile, John Johannesmeyer, product-marketing manager at Rappore Technologies Inc. (San Jose), weighs in with a different point of view. "The development of voice recognition technology has, to date, met with limited, if not little, success." The missing link, he said, appears no longer to be a digital problem, and can be solved with technologies such as Bluetooth. Torsten Lehman, product-marketing manager for navigation and telematics at Philips Semiconductors (San Jose), takes the issue from a hardware perspective with an economical suggestion: integration. Using as few as four ICs, telematics system builders can achieve economies of scale by not duplicating such devices as CPUs and ROMs, Lehman suggests.
But these solutions represent the tip of the technical iceberg. Experts argue that much work remains before legislators and the public feel confident about the technology. "It's not enough to say that a phone is hands-free," said Will Fitzgerald, chief technology officer of I/NET Inc. "The issue is the cognitive burden on the driver, and that hasn't been completely resolved yet."