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    Telematics – or machine-to-machine – has reinvented itself — from ‘nearly’ technology to a growing phenomenon in the automotive industry. And this is where its development could provide operators with another revenue stream, explains Tony Dennis.

    elematics has often been hailed as a powerhouse for generating the additional network traffic that mobile operators crave.  Yet it has even been forced to re-invent itself as M2M (machine-to-machine) communications in order to improve its image — without any major success.

    The real problem seems to be that, in attempting to provide all-encompassing solutions, the network operators and associated equipment vendors have failed to make any great impact. Until now, that is. One particular niche — allying telematics to the automotive industry — is now proving a far more successful formula. This has even enabled a specialist ‘Telematics Valley’ hub of expertise, located in Sweden, to spring up in order to service the demand for vehicle telematics in global markets.

    Catch-all approach

    Looking back, a good illustration of the catch-all approach to telematics is provided by the Observation Camera currently offered by Nokia. This product acts like an electronic guard dog, alerting its master via SMS and MMS to any unusual activity in the surrounding area. Besides a SIM card and a built-in GSM handset, the camera also contains a temperature sensor — to detect fires, for example. It’s even possible to call the Observation and listen for any unusual sounds.

    Overall, the Observation Camera is a very generic, yet relatively easy-to-install product.  But it didn’t inspire much support. Simultaneously, however, a somewhat similar approach to telematics has been taken by Orange by offering the sigmaBox from Box Telematics. Once again, this solution offers an all-encompassing approach to telematics’ requirements via a range of sensors fitted in the sigmaBox effectively being hooked up to a built-in GSM phone.

    By complete contrast, Orange appears to have enjoyed much better commercial success when joining together with Brulines, Irsys and Box Telematics to introduce a targeted product — the ‘intelligent pub’ solution. This is a system which actively monitors how many pints of beer are sold in a pub or club and transmits the collected data back to the owner via GPRS. It’s being rolled out to multiple venues in the UK.

    Nonetheless, the area which is creating the greatest commercial interest lies with combining in-vehicle intelligent systems and telematics itself.  Figures produced by TRG (Telematics Research Group) show that the global market for telematics systems will grow from a meagre 2.5 million units in 2002 to an impressive 28 million units by 2010. Furthermore in-vehicle phones will increase from 2.6 million units to 33 million units by 2010. 

    Even more importantly, the TRG predicts the attach rate for many of these systems will approach 50 per cent of global vehicle sales by the end of the decade. As Phil Magney, principal analyst with TRG, explained. “The automotive industry is putting more resources into the design of the interior.” This means that audio installed components are matched to meet the acoustic properties of the vehicle.

    Significantly, many innovative solutions in this sector are coming out of Sweden’s Telematics Valley, thanks to the presence of major automotive manufacturers — Ford, BMW, Saab and Volvo — alongside telecommunications specialists (Ericsson). Hence Telematics Valley has contributed key technology towards most major innovative telematics solutions which are now in commercial production.

    A really good example here is Volvo Cars’ On Call system which is offered in conjunction with Vodafone. [Volvo Cars is actually part of the Ford group which means this solution is gradually being rolled out across Europe starting with Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK.] Particularly intriguing is the fact that this system is a dual SIM product whereby the vehicle has its own  unrestricted SIM card for emergency calls in the event that the car owner’s handset and SIM malfunctions or isn’t present.

    Essentially the car’s owner has the choice of two buttons: ‘On Call’ which acts like an in-vehicle concierge: and a red ‘SOS’ button. So, for example, if the car’s alarm is triggered, the car automatically notifies Volvo’s On Call centre agents who can then call to alert the owner.  Alternatively, what happens if the owner loses his or her car keys? A Volvo On Call centre agent  can ask the unlucky caller some security questions and then let the owner back into the vehicle remotely. If the car is stolen, Volvo’s On Call can track its location and recent movements to aid recovery.  If the car does break down, pushing the On Call button transfers the caller to Volvo’s roadside help centre and provides the centre agent with precise details of the car’s location.

    According to Niklas Wahlberg,  a director with Volvo Cars, there are many additional possibilities with On Call. For example, it can detect if an airbag has been triggered. The On Call agents could then attempt to phone the driver and if they get no reply, summon help if necessary.  The system’s location awareness capabilities could even warn drivers if they are straying outside geographical/national boundaries where their standard car insurance won’t cover them.

    Another fine example of how in-vehicle telematics can work well is provided by a real-time traffic monitoring system currently operational in Seoul, Korea.  The Real Traffic solution actually makes use of three entirely different wireless systems. Its objective is to provide real-time traffic flow information to the general public. Subscribers can see a ‘live’ map of the city’s thoroughfares that highlights were traffic is flowing freely and where it is snarled up.  The raw traffic flow data is provided by taxis and police vehicles which are fitted with both a GPS receiver and a Mobitex wireless data modem.  Real-time traffic flows can be calculated and fed back to mobile phone subscribers who view traffic maps on their mobile phones or wireless PDAs.

     The handsets in this instance are actually CDMA based units but this is largely irrelevant since the maps are viewed via a WAP browser, so it can easily be modified to work with GSM phones. In fact Mobitex has supplied a similar system in Singapore and a bus tracking system in Paris. Significantly, Real Telecom, which provides the service in Korea, chose to utilise Mobitex dedicated data terminals to provide positioning information back to the central computers, but 3G or SMS could feasibly be used instead.

    Real world systems
    Another good illustration of how specialist companies in Telematics Valley have provided real world systems is provided by SunFleet Carsharing. By connecting a PilotFish communications box to the vehicle’s on-board computer, an authorized user can unlock a rental car just by sending an SMS message. This solution totally eliminates the need for human intervention. All the customer needs to do is stand next to the car and wait for the door to be opened by SMS. The ignition keys have been left in the glove compartment but the car is immobilised until the SMS is received.

    Sweden’s Telematics Valley isn’t the only player in this sector — there are centres of similar expertise in Stuttgart and Tokyo. However, its mix of small specialist companies — like Wireless car — alongside big name players such as Vodafone, IBM and Ericsson, is breathing new life into telematics. They’ve proved that something as simple as sending an SMS message to open a lock can have true commercial benefits — and create extra traffic for the network providers at the same time.

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