Right now, there may be a whole lot going on inside of your car or truck that you simply take for granted; especially if your ride is equipped with a factory-installed vehicle telematics system such as GM's OnStar or Ford's SYNC system. Both of these systems allow you to receive roadside assistance or automatically notify paramedics if your car is involved in a crash. It might even be integrated with a GPS and a turn-by-turn direction system of some kind. While on long trips, you can listen to songs through your hard drive based MP3 player, or passengers can watch their favorite movies on DVDs played through a built-in vehicle entertainment system. Meanwhile, electronic control units throughout your entire car are monitoring wheel slip, engine temperature, fuel mixture and hundreds of other variables, all while regulating the anti-lock brakes, traction control systems and other safety and control features.
Sounds pretty impressive, doesn't it? But what will the next generation of telematics technology be able to add to your driving experience? Well, it will integrate all of those features and functions into one cohesive system. Music, maintenance, safety and security, shopping and entertainment will all be combined and controlled through a Web interface. Your car will be fully networked. A platform that can deliver services that haven't even been thought of yet, all linked to a broader network of information. That's the future of automotive telematics technology as envisioned by Hughes Telematics, a company that's providing automotive telematics services to Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz starting in 2009.
This article will explain what the Hughes Telematics' system will do, and how it works to keep all of your car's electronic systems running in unison. And we'll even find out how telematics could let you purchase a song via iTunes -- while you're driving.
What is telematics?
The word telematics technically refers to any system by which a mechanical or electronic device communicates with other devices or with human users over a network. Over the years, the term has come to mean the specific use of on-board communication capabilities in automobiles. General Motors calls their telematics system OnStar, while Ford's system is called SYNC. At present, Hughes Telematics has not yet announced the brand name of their upcoming system -- since Mercedes-Benz does not typically allow third-party branded systems in their cars, whatever name Hughes chooses may only show up in Chrysler vehicles.
The Hughes Telematics system does not represent a revolutionary change from prior telematics systems. There will be additional services and options compared to current services such as OnStar, but Hughes will not instantly change the nature of the telematics industry. Rather, they're aiming to create a platform of vehicle information and safety services that can be built-on for years to come, offering the flexibility to create new technologies and services as customers demand them.
The key to this plan is in linking all of the various electronic systems already on board most modern vehicles. A car bought in the last 15 years most likely has an engine controller, a body controller, and several other electronic control units (ECUs). Some of these systems communicate with each other to some extent (we'll explain how shortly), but there isn't generally one processor than can understand data from all of the various ECUs, and certainly none of them are integrated with your MP3 stereo or LCD viewing screen. The Hughes Telematics system will access and interpret all of the information and make it available to the user.
On the next page, we'll take a look at some of the features and functions of the Hughes Telematics system along with a brief description of how they operate.
Hughes Telematics System
The Hughes Telematics system is actually an intricate network of systems and features that can cross-communicate. Here are some of the features being touted by Hughes:
- Roadside assistance, emergency calling, automatic crash notification and stolen vehicle locator service -- These safety and security features are similar to those offered by other telematics systems, relying on GPS information and a cell phone connection. In addition to locating a stolen vehicle, the system can shut down a stolen car by cutting off the fuel supply. This feature could reduce the chance of dangerous high speed chases and increase the chances of recovering a stolen vehicle. Emergency calls are handled by Intrado, Inc., a company that is heavily involved in development of the 911 emergency response system in the United States [source: Hughes Telematics]. Intrado's system will be able to route emergency calls to the nearest available emergency response unit.
- Telematic navigation, turn-by-turn directions, real-time traffic information, traffic camera access -- Initially, Hughes Telematics-equipped cars will be able to receive traffic information from Hughes' own network, which will use numerous sources to develop traffic info. These sources include sensors built into traffic lights and other key locations, toll booths and traffic cameras. A few years down the road, data from each individual car could be incorporated as well, including speed, braking, and steering wheel position. Once all personal information is stripped away from the data, it can then be used to build a more complete and dynamic picture of current traffic conditions. Hughes has partnered with Concentrix Corporation to provide call centers to respond to customer care requests [source: Hughes Telematics].
- Vehicle maintenance reminders, diagnostic health check, recall reminder, remote emissions testing -- Currently, the various ECUs on a car can be accessed by a mechanic using an expensive piece of equipment known as a diagnostic scan tool. The Hughes Telematics system will allow the user to access diagnostic information through a Web interface, which can be configured to create maintenance reminders and automatic recall notices. Hughes already participates in a pilot program in California known as the Continuous Smog Check Testing Program. Volunteers with the proper equipment installed on their cars don't need to visit a mechanic for required emissions testing -- emissions levels are tested continuously, and an automatic notification is sent if levels ever fall out of compliance, without the user having to visit a mechanic for regular emissions tests.
- Local information, stocks, weather, sports, news, streaming and storage of music and videos -- Using Bluetooth wireless connections, cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players and other electronic devices can be integrated into the on-board telematics system.
Up next, we'll learn about the Telematics Control Unit.
The Telematics Control Unit
The heart (and brain) of the Hughes Telematics system is the Telematics Control Unit (TCU). The TCU is a small computer that listens in on the communications of other electronic systems in the car, then interprets and disperses that data as necessary. It accomplishes this by piggy-backing onto the Controller Area Network (CAN-bus) a communication system found in all modern cars. The CAN-bus acts as a communications bridge between all of the ECUs within the vehicle. Hughes' TCU pulls data from the CAN-bus -- this simplifies the system because it doesn't need to be wired into every single ECU in the car. It can get data from any ECU by simply listening in on the CAN-bus network. In some ways, it acts much like a mechanic's diagnostic scan tool, but it makes the data available to the driver in a number of user-friendly ways that are comprehensible to the average car owner.
The TCU itself is roughly the size and weight of a paperback book. It's designed with heat and vibration shielding, so it could be mounted anywhere theoretically, including in the engine compartment. Exact positioning depends on the model of car. Hughes has not released any details on the operating system or specific architecture of the unit, although Hughes Telematics President Erik Goldman reported that the processing power would be "in the 500 megahertz (MHz) range," similar to the ARM11 chips used in other automotive applications. Hughes has announced partnerships with IBM and Oracle, who were involved in developing the hardware and software used in the TCU and in user interface systems [source: Hughes Telematics]. It will carry on-board RAM and was designed with flexibility in mind. Via Bluetooth or possibly a USB port, the device will be able to interface with "virtually every form of human machine," according to Goldman.
Keep reading to find out how Hughes intends to keep you your vehicle hooked up.
Telematics Network Technology
Gathering information from the CAN-bus is a great way to stay informed, but the information is more or less useless unless the user can somehow access that data. Hughes accomplishes this by employing a number of methods, including using four concentric circles of communication. The first circle is Bluetooth connectivity, which allows someone inside the car to interface with the system by using a cell phone or other Bluetooth enabled device, such as a Blackberry. The second circle is a two-way cell link that allows the vehicle to send information to the Hughes network. This type of connection permits the network to send information to the vehicle. Hughes is working with several cell providers, but has not yet named their partners. Second-generation Hughes systems will incorporate true 3G broadband features. Cell data is transmitted with a high-gain antenna mounted on top of the vehicle, usually near the rear window. The third circle is actually a WiFi network connection. This means that the vehicle can act as a mini WiFi hot spot, and at certain times, it can link with a network at the user's home -- when it's parked in the garage, for example, allowing information to be uploaded into the vehicle. The user could load a series of street maps, favorite songs and even a few videos to watch on a long trip, for example, or configure automatic daily uploads of traffic and weather information.
The fourth circle is hypothetical at this point. In the future, Hughes plans to create a satellite network that will allow the telematics system to operate anywhere and at all times. Anyone who has ever gone camping or traveled in a city with lots of tall buildings with a cell phone knows that cell coverage is not 100 percent perfect. Satellite communication will help to increase that reliability. Hughes will not actually launch their own satellites -- they'll lease space on next-gen telecommunications satellites that offer higher power return feeds, so that satellite communication will be truly two-way.
In the next section, we'll look at the ways users will interface with the telematics system.
There will be several ways for users to interact with the Hughes Telematics system. Hughes has put a lot of development time into voice recognition software -- in fact, all in-car aspects of the system can be activated hands-free by simply speaking in a natural, conversational manner. This feature also allows new users to immediately start working with the system without having to read any technical manuals. In addition to voice recognition, Hughes also has a text-to-voice system that will interpret e-mail messages and read them aloud. The user can then compose and send an e-mail using just voice commands.
One of the more innovative aspects of the system is the ability to interface via a Web portal. A secure website hosted by Hughes Telematics will allow users to log in and check the diagnostics of their car, set up daily uploads via the WiFi network or subscribe to new services. Company president Erik Goldman envisions telematics as a way to integrate your car into your life in new and exciting ways. "Telematics isn't just a safety feature, it can be something you experience every day," he said.
Indeed, this philosophy is tied to Hughes Telematics' business model. Current telematics systems are linked to a subscription service. If the user stops paying for the subscription, he or she loses access to all of the system's features. Hughes will follow more of an à la carte model that allows for impulse purchases and micropayments. For example, users might not want to pay a monthly fee for access to local info and telematics navigation. However, if they travel out of town and find themselves looking for a restaurant, they might be willing to pay a one-time fee to access the service. Goldman gave another example: "Let's say you hear a song you like on the radio -- using voice commands, you can immediately purchase that song from iTunes."
Some features will be subscription based, but users will be able to choose exactly what they need. Goldman gave the example of a father who gives his daughter the car to use while she's away at college. He can use the Web interface to set up maintenance reminders and even configure a "geo-fence" using the on-board GPS to make sure his daughter doesn't drive out of state. The average user might not want these features, and even the fictional father in this example won't need them during the summer months, when his daughter returns from school.
The customization options don't end there, however. Development cycles for automotive technology can take years, but Hughes is developing a flexible mobile telematics system that can adapt to new applications as users demand them. It might work in a way similar to the iPhone App Store. Third-party developers could create software packages that take advantage of the telematics system. Once approved by Hughes, the apps will be made available for purchase by the users, who can pick and choose the applications they like.
You can learn more about vehicle telematics and other related topics on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Goldman, Erik. President of Hughes Telematics, Inc. Personal interview.Conducted Dec. 23, 2008.
- Hughes Telematics, Inc. "Concentrix Signs Multi-year Contract with Hughes Telematics." Oct. 17, 2008. (Jan. 22, 2009) http://www.hughestelematics.com/news/?p=22
- Hughes Telematics, Inc. "Hughes Technology Drives VICI Racing Into the Future in 2008 American Le Mans Series." May 26, 2008. (Jan. 22, 2009) http://www.hughestelematics.com/news/?p=16
- Hughes Telematics, Inc. "Hughes Telematics and Intrado Partner to Set New Safety Benchmark Behind the Wheel." July 8, 2008. (Jan. 22, 2009) http://www.hughestelematics.com/news/?p=18
- Hughes Telematics, Inc. "Hughes Telematics Signs Agreements with IBM and Oracle." Aug. 7, 2008. (Jan. 22, 2009) http://www.hughestelematics.com/news/?p=19