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A Brief History of Telematics and In-Vehicle Systems

Carmakers have been promoting the notion of connected cars for years. Not to debate the exact roots and history of connected cars and the history of telematics, we often think of General Motors’ OnStar, which was debuted in 1995, as one of the earliest renditions of telematic based consumer services and OnStar as one of the first telematics service providers (TSPs). Today practically all OEMs offer some level of telematic / connected car capabilities in most of their models. However, as you can see in this summary of telematic features, OEMs are taking very different approaches to implementing connected car services, from the insular OnStar and Infinity Connection systems to the very open Bluetooth centric Ford Sync.

Almost from its outset, TSPs touted the value of telematic services in remote early diagnostics and potentially valuable but seldom required services such as roadside assistance and theft recovery, all, of course, for a monthly subscription fee. But, to their chagrin, OEMs have discovered that consumers don’t care that much about remote diagnostics and promises for better dealership repair experience—and they certainly do not expect to pay for them.

Higher bandwidth cellular communication, coupled with cost-effective GPS systems and dashboard based computing and displays, have led to a wave of improvements in-vehicle navigation, satellite radio streaming and location based services. In-vehicle systems, or in-vehicle infotainment (IVI), have become today’s battleground for innovation and differentiation for auto OEMs.

But here, again, consumers did not always respond to the way OEMs had expected for the simple reason that modern consumer devices, especially smartphones, already have similar (if not better) features,  can do everything the car can offer, and do it essentially for free! The only notable difference is that a dashboard video display offers a superior user experience; I’ll get to this topic later in this post.

What Is (And Where Is) Your Digital Identity?

Consumers like using smartphones not only because they offer a wealth of fun and useful apps. Smartphones manage personal data and personalized services. In a way, a smartphone is a representation of the user’s portable digital identify. In fact, taking this notion one step further, the digital identify is stored in the user’s cloud and is represented by login credentials: same information and same experience independent of the mobile device.

Consumers want their digital identity to be always present and travel with them independent of device, location or mode of transportation.  They expect to be able to access services, infotainment and personal information the same way from a personal car, when using public transit, or deriving a rental car.

The OEM-centric view, which is based on the vehicle identification number (VIN), does not provide consumers the modality-independent continuous digital presence and seamless experience. In fact, as automakers continue to add IVI capabilities and attempt to out-innovate the competition by adding more options and features, the in-vehicle experience for drivers and passengers alike is getting more complex and requires re-learning and re-personalization—a stark difference from the smartphone industry.

A Hybrid Model

While consumers want a pervasive digital presence with similar and seamless experience, the in-vehicle experience and usage, is, by definition, different from consuming other types of information or conducting other types of transactions.

There are two categories of connected car information. One is VIN centric data that include data such as performance and efficiency, health monitoring and diagnostics, remote updates, stolen vehicle tracking, and pay as you drive insurance reporting. The other category is driver centric: navigation, traffic and weather information, streamed content and personal apps.

While some data classes may remain isolated, certain applications and services such as pay as you drive insurance associate the user digital identity and the car identify (VIN) data. And as the richness and complexity of information generated by the car, beamed-in the car cellular data link, and brought in via a consumer devices increase, so will the need and opportunity for complex hybrid applications.

Which Screen?

Popular attitude is that consumer devices, especially smartphones, are better than OEM-built IVI units: they represent the latest wireless technology, have a superior user interface, enjoy a large population of experienced users, and benefit from an open ecosystem of app developers. Consumers upgrade their mobile technology every 12 to 24 months and their technology is always several years ahead of what’s available in cars.

On the other hand, the reliability of consumer grade devices is too low to run critical automotive applications. Open systems, while encouraging participating and innovation, also instigate integration, testing challenges and concerns not only about reliability, but also about hacking and compromised safety and privacy. To a great extent, these factors contribute to the fact that IVI technologies in auto dealer showrooms lag behind the state of the art of smart device technologies.

Automakers should not insist on owning the entire in-vehicle experience of driver and passengers and convey it using the build in screen. A better approach would be to adopt a hybrid model that better accommodate consumers’ preference.

  • The car’s display replicates the user’s telephone using MirrorLink (formerly known as “Terminal Mode”).
    • Based on open standards such as OpenXC and Genivi.
    • Enable sharing of select vehicle OBD II information with smartphone-based apps, which, in turn, can be replicated onto the vehicle’s main display.

Driver Distraction

No discussion on IVI and the use of phone in cars is complete without addressing the concern about driver distraction and the growing number of crashes and fatalities. According to NHTSA statistics, in 2012, an estimated 421,000 people were injured in vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, an increase of 9% from 2011. (Just for the record, distracted driving statistics include non-IVI and cell phone usage.)

Taking control over the smartphone application and moving it to a larger and better ergonomically designed display and controls can reduce the visual, cognitive and manual attention from driver. Furthermore, the IVI system should modify the user interface flow, issue adequate warnings, and conceivably block certain activities that are deemed most distracting such as texting.

Voice commands are frequently offered as a viable solution to reduce driver distraction, but OEMs will undoubtedly argue that smartphone based voice recognition systems may be too open for malicious activities and that recognition accuracy of brought-in devices is impacted by cabin noise while traveling in the highway.

Studies conducted by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety research show that despite the technical achievements of smartphone-based voice recognition systems like Apple’s Siri, these systems were not designed to be used while driving, and the flow and even the interaction style, and, in fact, can increase distraction rather than reduce it. The AAA research report shows that Siri-based voice interaction as well as some OEM designed system create high cognitive load that exceeds manual interaction.

In the next blog post I will continue the discussion about vehicle connectivity, this time from the perspective of the heated debate in Washington, D.C. on Net Neutrality.