Telematics and M2M communications: Creating the Internet of things

The Internet is typically experienced as a virtual realm of information, entertainment, and social networking.

But as mobile technology becomes more and more sophisticated, an ‘Internet of things’ is emerging—devices and physical objects that have their own IP addresses and/or act as nodes on data networks that may be local, regional, or global.

These machine-to-machine (M2M) communications can transmit real-time information about everything from weather and road conditions to manufacturing processes to where an individual product is in the supply chain.

As mobile phone penetration exceeds 100 percent in some markets, telcos are looking to M2M to expand their revenues—and automotive telematics is set to be an important sector.

Wireless World Research estimates there will be 7 trillion wireless devices, including sensors and tags, contributing data by 2017. Research firm Analysys Mason forecasts that total worldwide M2M device connections in the automotive and transport sector will increase from an estimated 21.6 million in 2010 to 276.5 million in 2020.

Sprint and T-Mobile, for example, already have M2M initiatives in autos, passenger trains, and jet planes. (For more on Sprint’s Connected Transportation Initiative, see ‘M2M telematics: Turning the OEM development model on its head’; for on T-Mobile’s M2M efforts, see ‘Telematics and M2M communications: The next step’.)

Expanded opportunities

There is plenty of opportunity here not only for mobile network operators but also for most players in the auto telematics world: software developers, hardware makers, systems designers, telematics service providers, and automakers themselves.

For example, IBM sees expanded opportunity in both its software development and professional services lines of business.

In April, it announced a collaboration with the California Department of Transportation and the California Center for Innovative Transportation (CCIT), a research institute at the University of California, Berkeley, to develop an intelligent transportation solution that will help commuters avoid congestion and enable transportation agencies to better understand, predict, and manage traffic flow. (For more on intelligent transportation solutions, see ‘Telematics and driver distraction: Telcos take control’.)

This Smarter Traveler Research Initiative will make use of a new predictive modeling tool developed by IBM Research to aggregate and analyze traffic data generated from existing sensors in roads, toll booths, bridges, and intersections with GPS information from participating consumers’ mobile phones. IBM’s theme is “instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent,” says Kal Gyimesi, global automotive leader for the IBM Institute for Business Value.

“Everything—the phone, the road, the car—is becoming instrumented to be able to detect each other and collect information about each other. As the telecom infrastructure becomes stronger, we will have the ability to integrate the data rapidly.”

The intelligence part of the formula comes when IBM applies its sophisticated analytics and statistical tools to forecast traffic conditions and give drivers actionable information before they get on the road.

Some networks of things may be limited to a single vehicle. In other cases, the car may connect with vast grids of sensors and other devices. According to Wireless World Research, there is a need for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications as well as car-to-road, car-to-infrastructure, and car-to-driver communications.

In addition, vehicle-specific internal communications may take place.

Everything connected

A true ‘Internet of things’, in which every device or system is able to connect and exchange information with every other, is “a very lofty end goal. It’s been a lofty goal for a long time,” says Frost & Sullivan analyst Veerender Kaul.

While we may never achieve a global M2M network, Kaul says the obvious first targets are the devices and places where people spend the most time: “You spend most time at home, at work, or driving in a vehicle. So these would be the things you would most like to connect in a seamless network environment.”

Networking the home, car, and workplace has already begun, at least for electric vehicles. Utility companies and auto manufacturers are working with service providers and charging station networks to enable EV owners to control charging remotely, check on state of charge, and determine when charging will be cheapest.

In this scenario, the home energy management network connects to the EV’s systems, either directly or through a Web portal, while the consumer’s smartphone becomes the controller and interface when at work or on the go. (For more on EVs, see ‘Six reasons the smartphone is key to auto telematics’ and ‘Telematics and EVs: Things to do while charging ’.)

Meanwhile, other networks of things are expanding. The EPC global standard aims to develop a global, Internet-based way of exchanging information about individual units of products as they move from factory to shipper to store.

Some of the world’s largest manufacturers and retailers are participating, including Johnson & Johnson, LG Electronics, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Novartis Pharma AG, and Wal-Mart Stores. Utility companies hope to improve their ability to meet demand and balance loads by way of sensors deployed around their smart grid systems that would feed information into massive databases.

(For more on smart grids, see ‘Telematics and smart grids: The business opportunity’.) In the automotive sector, companies like Telogis allow combine data from fleet vehicles, weather, traffic, and fuel cards to enable more efficient fleet management.

The question is, will such systems ever be connected into one consolidated ‘Internet of things’ or will they remain separate? There are extreme business model challenges, Kaul believes, because so many disparate entities and sectors would have to contribute to an overall solution. There are also regulatory and privacy roadblocks.

There’s still little agreement on communication protocols and transmission frequencies, while different entities may tussle over the ownership of the data generated by these systems. But if these challenges can be addressed, the ‘Internet of things’ could be as transformative as the Internet of information.

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on M2M, EVs, and the latest trends in telematics, join the sectors other key players at Telematics Munich 2011 on November 9-10 in Munich.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.

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