Bluetooth Makes Telematics a Reality
By Niall McKay in Silicon Valley, Mon Sep 30 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Telematics are taking off, driven by a technology you might not have expected.

Locked out of your car? Dial a number; enter a pass code and you car door pops open by remote control. In an accident? Then the vehicle's GPS system will report your position to the emergency services. On your way to work, the car can also read your email or stock quotes. At last these were the sales pitch for the (automobile) telematics industry, a sector that at one time was predicted to generate between $30-$40 billion by 2007.

Of course, that was during the heady days of the high-tech boom since then, Wingcast, a Ford and Qualcomm joint venture, was shut down and OnStar, a General Motors system that assigns each vehicle with a unique telephone number is finding it difficult to retain its customers after the first initial free trial year.

Eyes Free Function

In fact, many believe that Bluetooth, the short-range wireless networking standard is a far better solution and could become the glue that underpins a new telematics industry. This time the proprietary systems that combine cellular technology, Internet access, GPS and navigation will be replaced with off the shelf cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players and navigation systems.

Bluetooth, was originally designed for devices such as PCs and printers in the home could give vehicles the ability to communicate dozens of computing devices. With it, in-vehicle computer systems that until now carry out some pretty useless tasks such as predicting gas mileage and relaying the outside temperatures could become smart enough to screen your phone calls, pay road tolls, and guide you to your destination. Eventually, such systems could even include collision avoidance technology (standard in aircrafts) that could prevent your vehicle from hitting an SUV traveling 90 miles an hour in the opposite direction. Currently, car manufacturers such as BMW and Saab and cellular companies such as Motorola and Sony/Ericsson are building Bluetooth in new vehicles and cell-phones because of the increasing legislative pressure to prevent drivers from using their cell phones in normal mode while driving.

And with good reason. After all, according to a recent study by the UK-based Transport Research Laboratory driving while operating a cell phone is more dangerous than driving over the legal alcohol limit. And yet over 78 percent of America's 120 million cell-phone users talk and drive. That is why in many parts of the EU and now some parts of the US such as New York it has become illegal to chat and drive without a hands free car kit.

So BMW and Saab and have started to use Bluetooth to provide the driver with a hands free/eyes free way to send and receive cell phone calls while on the move. The automobiles in car audio system, or more specifically its speaker system, microphone, and muting function are pared with the owner's cell phone (which might be in a jacket or bag in the back seat or trunk). That way, the driver does not have to find a cell phone while on the move. The eyes free functions include voice recognition technology, which will enable the user to simply say the name of somebody in their cell-phone directory and the car systems will retrieve their number from the SIM card via the Bluetooth link. In the near future new display technology will enable certain information to be displayed on the car's display systems.

According to a report compiled by the Zelos Group, a research consultancy based in San Francisco, 150,000 vehicles will ship with this Bluetooth this year. By 2006 about 4.9 million cars will include Bluetooth connectivity. (see chart)

"However, once you have a connection into the vehicles computer system it becomes possible to use that connection for all sorts of applications," according to , principal with the Zelos Group. "I believe that Bluetooth will over take the telematics space replacing many of the proprietary systems with off the shelf applications. Automotive cycles times are really long but in time I think that Bluetooth will be come as ubiquitous as car stereos."

Certainly, Mike McCamon, executive director for Bluetooth SIG, Inc. agrees. The automotive Special Interest Group, has completed the hands free/eyes free Bluetooth profile. "In the near term we should be able to sync MPEGS with the audio or video hard disk in the car, and send electronic business cards to the cars navigation system," says McCamon. "In the long term we should be able to play videos or mp3 over a Bluetooth link or pay for things (such as bridge or road tolls or gas) electronically."

Indeed, McCamon admits to finding himself surprised by the automotive sectors interest in the technology. "Originally, we had not anticipated the popularity of Bluetooth with the auto industry," he says. "But now every major auto company is evaluating the technology."

Car Connections

The Oakland, California-base Kivera, which provides location-base software and systems to automotive suppliers such as JD Power and Associates and Denso is also building a system for AAA and AT&T.

"The problem today is that many navigation systems store their maps on DVDs or CDs but these can become obsolete pretty fast," says Mark Strassman, Kivera vice president. "With our product you can hit a button on the dash and it will dial out to our server, retrieve the driving directions, the route and the traffic information and upload them to the car screen using Bluetooth. If you accidentally veer off the rout the cell phone will notify the system and new directions will be retrieved." However, such GPS based navigation systems tend to be most popular in Japan where there are no street names and finding a destination can be difficult.

The system can also be used to provide AAA customers with a way to relay their location during a break down. "Basically, AAA is a location -services company so they are very interested in this technology," says Strassman.

Extended Systems, a company that produces Bluetooth software development kits to the auto services industry believes that the combination of Java and running on in car real-time operating systems and Bluetooth will open up a while slew of previously un thought of applications. "In the past, the such things have created application development mini-revolutions," says Glade Diviney, spokesman for Extended Systems. "Once a hands free profile is created other profiles can be added with no hardware manufacturing cost.

For example, says Diviney, a wireless serial port can be added for car diagnostics, car alarm, garage opener and point of sales transactions. File synchronization also allows music, games and videos to be transferred to the cars entertainment system.

Still, the current leader in auto telematics is the OnStar system with over a 1 million users but, as yet, it does not use Bluetooth. DaimlerChrysler by contrast will this fall will begin offering Bluetooth system called UConnect. And Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications, and Chapman Technologies have signed a $142 million agreement to collaborate in the development of a telematics platform using CDMA technology. Meanwhile Motorola is pushing Bluetooth as the open-standard for in-car, hands-free mobile phone kits. And that is just the beginning. A French company called Parrot is offering a sub-$500 Bluetooth car kit that will work with almost any phone.

Device Drivers

Certainly, hands free/eyes free solutions may be the application that popularizes Bluetooth in the vehicle but it will be the ability to sync or devices such as MP3 Players and navigation systems that will likely grow the market. One thing is for sure though. The larger expensive systems will not cut the mustard. As always with the high tech industry it is the simple applications such as relaying snap shots from traffic camera, or the ability to play your favorite tune that will out pace the rocket science such a the ability to know the exact latitude and longitude of your vehicle.

But lets face it, technologically; the automobile industry has few reasons to be proud. Since Karl Benz built the first gasoline powered vehicle back in 1889 cars have progressed little. Sure, they're safer now because of micro-controllers that operate antilock breaking systems and airbags. They have also added some rudimentary engine tuning technology but in many ways they are still the filthy, inefficient and essentially stupid hunks of iron that they always were.

In fact, if the computer industry were to have made as little progress we'd still be feeding magnetic tape into machines the size of city busses. But perhaps an open platform such as Bluetooth will change that taking cars from being deaf and dumb and blind to being able to talk, listen and even see the outside world.

Niall McKay is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo Japan. He can be reached at