Next-generation telematics: Connectivity is key

Next-generation telematics: Connectivity is key

People regularly trade in their cell phones after two years and don’t hold onto their laptops for much longer.

While consumer electronics devices are designed to be reasonably tough, it’s doubtful that any smartphone could meet the durability requirements laid out in the typical OEM or tier 1 RFQ.

But as drivers come to depend more and more on smartphones and applications to help them find their destinations, call for emergency services, or access infotainment, reliable connections to cellular networks will become even more crucial than they are today.

So, a key question for telematics service providers is: How to maintain connectivity in the in-car environment?

Quality and durability

When Sierra Wireless announced its AirPrime AR Series of embedded wireless modules for automotive manufacturers (to begin shipping in 2011), the company touted its ability to withstand extreme temperatures, thermal shocks, constant vibration, and humidity over many years.

“The biggest challenge is the lifetime of the product,” says Andreas Kohn, technical director, automotive, for Sierra Wireless.

He says his company typically must be prepared to provide and support any module for at least 10 years, including an end-of-life phase and the need for spare parts.

Acknowledging the desire of car manufacturers to add features while keeping the costs of telematics hardware down, Kohn points out that quality and durability are typically specified by Sierra’s customers.

“You have a 100-page thick durability specification and you have to fulfill it,” he says. “Yes, it’s more expensive.”

According to Leo McCloskey, vice president of marketing for Airbiquity, one upside of greater, persistent connectivity to the car will be the ease with which software upgrades can be performed.

“We’ll see less of the equipment change, but more offboard upgrades and updates,” he says.

While processors in cars seem robust today, in five years they’ll seem much less so. Nevertheless, McCloskey says, “They will still be able to handle any load that comes at them.”

Many of the applications Airbiquity is developing for electric vehicles are designed to do serious data crunching on a desktop computer and then send the results to the smartphone.

This could be an important tactic for providing ever richer, more complex applications to aging embedded devices.

“We believe some of this stuff is best held onboard, but with the coming ubiquity of communication, a lot of them should be done offboard,” McCloskey says. (For more from Leo McCloskey, see ‘Airbiquity: “Consumers expect services tailored to them from their selected information sources”’.)

Infotainment versus vehicle-centric services

Another issue raised by that 10-year product lifespan is supporting the rapid changes in the smartphone market, including the planned evolution of cellular networks to LTE. (For more on LTE, see Will LTE lead the 4G revolution? )

Kohn thinks today’s modems will still be serviceable even when new services and content are developed for delivery over broadband LTE networks.

“You always have two flavors in telematics: infotainment, where you have more need for the latest technology and maybe some issues of coping with what’s coming up, and vehicle-centric services, where high bandwidth is not really needed,” he says.

Hughes Telematics’ InDrive could solve the lifecycle problem in a different way, by offering consumers an easily swappable and upgradable aftermarket device.

The devices could be configured with emergency response, family monitoring services, diagnostics, and driver behavior data services.

The devices will plug into a car’s OBD port and include both a cellular modem and GPS.

Customers have yet to be announced, but Hughes sees insurance companies as the first important market.

“We’re packaging these serviced into a device that doesn’t require factory installation. You can do it yourself,” says Erik Goldman, president of Hughes Telematics.

The products could provide an answer, he says, for consumers who want the latest, coolest connected-car services but aren’t ready to go out and buy a new car.

At the same time, the devices are expected to connect to a car’s embedded systems.

Drivers might pay the standard subscription fee when they use the InDrive device to connect to embedded services such as Mercedes Benz’s mbrace.

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

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