The telecom industry is about to turbocharge the telematics business; your car's cockpit will never be the same. Ford Motor Co.'s announced alliance with Sprint to provide Internet access to motorists seems certain to boost public interest in a service that's a tough sell today.
Later this year, the two companies will start marketing factory-installed, Web-ready wireless phones.
Ford and Sprint plan to offer the usual menu of services, such as real-time traffic advisories, stock quotes and e-mail. Users will be able to customize their in-car Internet content through a Web site accessible from home computers. The service will supplement Lincoln's RESCU emergency roadside assistance service.
The key to all this is portability. Consumers want Internet access wherever they go. The obvious solution is the mobile telephone. Motorists don't want to spend vast sums of money adding hardware to their vehicles. Now they won't have to.
But how much are motorists willing to pay for limited Internet access? How can they get the data they want quickly? And what about safety? One can imagine the public outcry when a distracted motorist rams a school bus while trying to get stock quotes.
The industry is groping toward some solutions. First, let's talk about pricing. A Ford executive hinted that monthly fees might range from $9 to $19, depending on the service level. Several industry executives say that's a realistic price range. Moreover, telecommunications companies are likely to bundle mobile Internet access with traditional services such as long-distance phone service. If so, motorists could enjoy hefty discounts.
Now let's talk about data transmission. On average, data can be sent to moving vehicles at 4.8 kilobytes per second, which is deathly slow. By contrast, desktop computer modems typically download Internet data at 56 kilobytes per second. To solve this problem, Internet providers are turning to Wireless Application Protocol, or WAP. It is a global standard for mobile phones and Palm Pilot-type hand-held computers, and it gives users access to Internet services without plugging into a laptop computer.
Mobile telephone makers such as Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola have embraced WAP, which lets Internet service providers customize simple text messages for cell-phone users. Customer can use their phones to check airline schedules, movie listings, traffic information or restaurant listings.
Perhaps the most appealing service is real-time traffic advisories, which have proven popular in Germany. Radar sensors on every second highway overpass in Germany monitor traffic flow, alerting motorists to changing road conditions. Suppliers such as Robert Bosch GmbH are taking advantage by offering onboard navigation systems that display these advisories.
'This traffic information really helps,' said Wolf-Henning Scheider, managing director of sales at Bosch's Blaupunkt unit. 'We expect an annual sales growth of 50 to 100 percent.' It will be years before U.S. motorists will gain access to a comparable traffic monitoring system. That will slow the growth of telematics, but it won't kill it. In the United States, the key is emergency services.
'What is really driving the market is safety,' said Stephan Beckert, an analyst for Strategis Group, a telecommunications consulting firm in Washington. 'Security and safety are by far the dominant reasons to buy these services, and that alone is enough to grow the market.'
Finally, there is the driver distraction factor. Automakers are acutely aware of the need to make telematics safe to use in a moving car. Automakers promote voice recognition software as a cure-all. Their goal: Keep the driver's hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road.
To test their claims, I recently borrowed a Jaguar S-Type sedan equipped with Visteon's voice recognition technology.
The system lets the motorist use voice commands to make phone calls, tune the radio and adjust the climate control. The voice commands were logical and easy to memorize. However, it remains to be seen how well voice recognition will handle complex demands. In any event, voice recognition is not a show-stopper. The Internet is on its way to your car.
David Sedgwick is editor of Automotive News International. He can be reached at [email protected]