The (Cheaper) Wireless Dashboard
By Jeff Goldman, Tue Jul 22 11:30:00 GMT 2003

The auto industry is shifting its perception of telematics, targeting consumers with lower-cost applications that they actually need.

Driving down a winding road late at night, you find yourself struggling to stay awake. As your head begins to nod forward, a camera mounted in the rear view mirror catches your movements. Your dashboard responds by switching the radio to a rock station, then turning up the volume.

This is just one part of a system that was recently demonstrated at IBM Research in Hawthorne, New York. By evaluating the driver's drowsiness and the road conditions, the system makes decisions about whether or not to allow incoming mobile phone calls and even what music to play to keep the driver as alert and focused as possible.

And this is only one of many ways in which wireless computing and cars are working together: the automobile is increasingly becoming a key part of the wireless experience. For now, though, the focus is on keeping costs low and presenting consumers with services that they actually need.

Keeping it Simple

Just over a year ago, Ford and QUALCOMM dissolved Wingcast, a joint venture created to provide drivers with everything from GPS navigation to concierge services. Frank Viquez, Director of Automotive Electronics at ABI Research, says Wingcast had simply tried to do too much too quickly.

These days, Viquez says, auto makers are much more cautious about high-tech systems. "Due to what's going on in the economy, just selling a vehicle is much more difficult than it was even a year or two ago," he said. "So auto makers are a lot less likely to spend money on new telematics initiatives."

One application that serves as an indication of the industry's new perspective is the Chrysler Group's UConnect offering, a Bluetooth-enabled system which starts with hands free voice dialing but adds some additional functionality, such as an address book and multi-phone recognition.

Viquez says the UConnect model is the best way to deliver this kind of offering in today's economy. "They're taking small steps," he said. "It's more of a car kit than it is a telematics device, but that functionality is there if you need it. The consumer can decide what they want and what they'll pay for."

Staying Safe

An additional way for manufacturers to target price-conscious consumers is by offering applications which provide for basic needs like safety and auto maintenance. One such company is Networkcar, which offers a wireless solution for automobile security and maintenance.

The company uses Cingular's Mobitex network (which also powers the RIM BlackBerry) to deliver data from the onboard diagnostics port in a customer's car to its servers in real time. From there, the information is made available online, where it can be viewed both by the consumer and by their mechanic.

Dave Dutch, Networkcar's President, says the aim is to make maintenance more efficient. "Imagine this," Dutch said. "You're driving to work, and your 'Check Engine' light goes on. At your computer, there's an email from your dealership saying, 'We noticed that your 'Check Engine' light went on. It's your gas cap: don't sweat it.' It just levels the playing field."

Beyond diagnostics, Networkcar also uses GPS to track the car's location, enabling vehicle recovery in case of theft and even allowing parents to track their children's movements with an online mapping system. But the focus, again, is on keeping costs low. "Because our solution is based on a data network and doesn't have a voice component, we're able to charge our consumers $9 a month," Dutch said.

Staying Connected

Another low-cost offering that's currently being added to vehicles is Wi-Fi connectivity. Fiat and 3Com Iberia recently announced an offering which embeds a Wi-Fi system into an automobile, allowing users to pull up to a hotspot and download anything from MP3s to email.

According to Nestor Carralero, Marketing Manager for 3Com Iberia, the best argument for Wi-Fi was the cost. "Wi-Fi, despite other wireless technologies such as UMTS or GPRS, offers broadband access at the lowest price," he said. And similar applications are being developed for Bluetooth.

Patty McHugh, Director of Telematics for IBM Pervasive Computing Solutions, says technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi will also make it far easier for consumers to take on additional services in the future. "Once these devices become pervasive in automobiles, we'll see the ecosystem grow to be able to add different applications depending on the kinds of things you want to get," she said.

And once the ecosystem grows, allowing consumers to pick and choose the applications they want, McHugh says your car will become just another device in your wireless network. "It'll become one of the many pervasive devices that you've got: your cell phone, your PDA, and your laptop," she said.

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering business and technology issues for publications ranging from Wireless Business & Technology Magazine to Jupitermedia's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.