The telematics aftermarket gets real

The telematics aftermarket gets real

In January 2013, Delphi joined OnStar in offering an aftermarket solution for the 250 million or so cars already on the road and unconnected. The company says its new device, called Vehicle Diagnostics by Delphi, will work with almost any vehicle sold in the United States in 1996 or later.

Vehicle Diagnostics by Delphi offers features similar to many fleet telematics services, including the ability to locate the family car, track its progress and set up geo-fences, with alerts when the car enters or exits the defined area. It also provides diagnostics, plus remote operations via mobile phone or browser. (For more on fleets, see Industry insight: Fleet telematics.)

The devices will be sold in Verizon retail stores. This kind of distribution is a departure for auto telematics devices, but it may be easier for them to catch customers' attention in an environment where they're already thinking about connected devices. But the big question is whether Verizon knows how to sell those systems in its own stores.

Plug and play

That's been one struggle for OnStar's FMV, sold originally through Best Buy and now also at other consumer electronics retail stores. An OnStar spokesperson acknowledged that FMV was selling at lower rates than OnStar had expected, although sales improved when the price dropped to $99.99.

Victor Canseco, director of software and services for Delphi, says that, while Verizon is training it sales staff now, "Ours is essentially plug and play. There is very little training required to use most of the features."

Delphi designed the system to be equally easy to develop for. "This is architected in a way that's very open," Canseco says. "We can partner with anyone who develops smartphone apps. Even if you're a business that has a Web presence, you can work with our architecture." (For more on apps, see Industry insight: Telematics and apps and Industry insight: The connected car.)

While Delphi moves from embedded devices to aftermarket, a slew of performance aftermarket companies are panting to get into connected-car services, according to John Waraniak, vice president of vehicle technology for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA).

"SEMA has been hacking into vehicles for 25 years. Now, it's cool." He says most developers who go to OEMs' hackathons come from aftermarket companies. "They are closer to the intersection of technology and culture than OEMs could ever be," Waraniak says.

While many SEMA companies want to produce or augment auto telematics, integrating with the diversity of onboard systems is a daunting task. "A customer could have ordered one of 5,000 derivatives of a Mustang, or one of 2,000 derivatives of a Cadillac. The combinations of technologies on specific customer vehicles are enormous. From an architecture perspective, they can think of that, but it will be fraught with all sorts of difficulties," Waraniak says. (For more from John Waraniak, see Q&A: Telematics, apps and making connectivity cool.)

Upgradeable cars

While plugging into the OBD port or CAN bus can provide standardized access to the car, it doesn't provide enough options, according to Chris Cook, president of the Mobile Electronics Retailers Association (MERA). "Those networks are proprietary and specific to a vehicle. Although CAN is an open protocol, when it's implemented, it becomes a closed protocol," Cook says. Most of the cost of engineering products, he adds, is tailoring them to individual automakers' protocols.

Makers of such aftermarket devices often have to include integration devices specifically designed to communicate between their products and the car, adding complexity, as well as cost. For example, he says, if a customer replaces a stock GM radio in a vehicle equipped with OnStar, OnStar will no longer function, nor will some of the safety chimes.

"Rather than building a path in, the aftermarket has had to reverse engineer and reengineer something so consumers can have what they want in the vehicle. Consumers are certainly willing to pay for professional installation, but when a $299 radio is now $699, that is past the price point that many consumers are willing to pay," Cook says.

He adds, "If Ford, for example, published the spec for Ford Sync and allowed all the aftermarket companies to build in software that would handshake with the vehicle, then you'd just plug it in and it would work."

Why don't automakers do that? Cook thinks it's partly that they are focused on designing and selling new cars. Once the car leaves the dealer showroom, it doesn't deliver monetary value to the company. But Cook thinks that making upgradeable cars would be valuable to the automakers' brands: Consumers can be irked when they can't get new technology installed in their five-year-old vehicles.

He'd like to see automotives OEMs even certify aftermarket products. For example, "They could approve a company as following the models for safety that they put in place." Car companies already are posing as technology companies, and Cook wants them to take another step. "An automaker should become a technology enabler rather than just a technology provider," he says. "Provide the latest, greatest technology, but enable more."

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on aftermarkets, see Industry insight: Telematics and apps and Industry insight: The connected car.

For more on aftermarkets, visit Telematics Detroit 2013 on June 5-6.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics for Fleet Management Europe 2013 on March 19-20 in Amsterdam, Telematics India and South Asia 2013 on April 17-18 in Bangalore, Insurance Telematics Europe 2013 on May 7-8 in London, Content & Apps for Automotive Europe 2013 on June 18-19 in Munich and Telematics Russia 2013 in September in Moscow.

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

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