Family car: Home away from home or tech toy aid?

The future of telematics might come down to a big debate between archrivals.

OnStar President Chet Huber sees a telematics future bright with services now delivered by portable cell phones, computers and personal digital assistants firmly embedded in cars and trucks - much like a home away from home, or office.

But John Slosar, Visteon's director of telematics and multimedia systems, says consumers will push automakers to find a way that popular electronics devices can be plugged into cars and trucks.

Since its split from Ford Motor Co. in 2000, Visteon () handles a majority of Ford's electronics work.

Huber runs General Motors' tele-matics arm, OnStar (), which is betting its future on embedding telematics. That means combining in-vehicle electronic devices, wireless connections and infoentertainment services.

Visteon, on the other hand, hopes to lock in on a new wireless-network technology called Bluetooth that lets consumers use their personal tech toys and gizmos in Visteon's Bluetooth Module vehicle environment.

Both would use a hands-free voice interface.

Huber's predictions

Huber sees these telematics trends in the coming years:

  • Embedded safety and security expected in all vehicles

  • Dramatically expanded content and personalization options

  • Continued public policy focus on driver distraction and privacy with implications for voice-based interfaces and customer control of information

  • Increased sophistication and personality in the voice-user interface

  • Seamless integration of service delivery options in and out of vehicles

  • Increased recognition of vehicles as a special place in life, similar to home and office

  • Transformed vehicle service experience

  • Broadened range of location-based services

  • Expanded bandwidth-enhanced technology to allow more services at lower costs.

    Slosar's view

    Slosar says Huber is wrong on several points.

    His notion: Choice is the key to telematics becoming popular in tomorrow's cars. Consumers want to choose telematics products and services, he says. They also expect safety and security features to be part of the cost of the car and not coming in separate monthly bills, such as OnStar.

    Slosar's primary trends encompass vehicle-centric and consumer-centric products and services - wireless Web browsing, wireless e-mail and the like.

    "The wireless guys will build and develop the models for these services independent from the auto industry," he said.

    "As such, many of these features will migrate to the vehicle after they are launched in the telecommunications and consumer electronics industry."

    Slosar says Visteon's approach is to:

  • Provide enough hardware and software in the vehicle to accommodate electronic docking of portable devices. Dockables will include not only cell phones but also personal digital assistants, such as PalmPilots.

  • Allow drivers, starting in late 2002, to tap the Bluetooth network and connect their phones to the vehicle's audio system. No phone docking stations are required. Bluetooth can access information from wireless personal digital assistants and laptop computers, if they have wireless modems.

  • Capitalize even more on Bluetooth technology to perform e-commerce functions, such as buying gasoline at a service station without using credit cards. At the service station's kiosk, these vehicles can download MP3 music files directly into the audio system and Mpg 4 video files for rear-seat entertainment systems.

    Meanwhile analyst Dan Garretson with Forrester Research () in Cambridge, Mass., concedes that while telematics technology may be cool, state legislatures ultimately will force consumers to adopt telematics. Some 45 legislatures are considering laws banning the use of hand-held cell phones in moving vehicles. New York passed such a law this year.

    Garretson adds that consumers are not likely to clamor for bandwidth-intensive services, as Huber suggests. Garretson says the primary services customers will adopt - voice communication, navigation assistance, emergency assistance and limited information - will mainly be low bandwidth.

    Mike Brennan is a Grand Rapids, Mich., writer and publisher. He can be reached at

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