Information Superhighway on the Actual Highway: Car Communication Technology

By McDermott, Irene E. | Searcher, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Information Superhighway on the Actual Highway: Car Communication Technology


McDermott, Irene E., Searcher


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Ten years ago in Los Angeles, even natives needed a map to find their way around the city. I always carried a book of them in my car: one of the famous Thomas Guides. [http://store.randmcnally.com/thomas-brothers/thomasguides.html]. Every decade or so, when the most-used pages would crumble out of the spiral binding, it was time to buy a new one!

Then, in 2004, I bought a Toyota Prius. This sweet, smart ride came loaded with what was then the latest technology. The hybrid engine is partially fueled by its regenerative braking system; that is, the excess energy generated by slowing the car gets captured and used to charge the battery. When I am running around town, I consistently get 40 miles per gallon. But the car runs entirely on electricity when moving at 20 mph or below. So, when I inch along in stop-and-go traffic, that number shoots up, sometimes to 55 mpg.

In addition, the Prius has a voice recognition system that allows me to set the temperature, make phone calls via my Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, and manipulate the satellite navigation system, all by talking to the rear-view mirror.

Needless to say, that satellite navigation system instantly made my Thomas Guide obsolete. Now, when I need driving directions, I enter an address into the dashboard console and a cool feminine voice (whom I have named "Betty") guides me to my destination. She doesn't even get passive-aggressive when I disobey her. Instead, she simply recalibrates the route and goes calmly on with her instructions.

In-car communication technology (telemetry, navigation, music, phone and internet connections) has progressed since then. In legacy systems, such as GM's OnStar, the technology resides in the vehicle itself. Latecomers to the scene, such as Toyota's Entune, which will be available later this year, rely on the driver's tethered smartphone to run apps for the car. This has the advantage that users don't have to drive to the dealership to get updates for their communications systems. And the offerings, through the apps, are easily extensible.

Auto Telematics

Communication between the car and the outside world is called telematics. This cross talk can consist of telemetry (monitors on the car automatically sending signals about its health), live traffic information, and a live internet connection for searching the web. Here are some of the telematics systems available now (or soon) in the U.S.

OnStar

http://www.onstar.com

General Motors pioneered car communication technology when it premiered its OnStar service in 1996. (OnStar is a subsidiary of GM.) Then, it was touted exclusively as a safety feature. A GPS receiver tracks the car's location. If the car gets in a collision or the driver pushes the OnStar button, a powerful built-in cell phone calls an OnStar operator. All the while, the system automatically transmits mechanical information about the car. The operator can assess the damage and alert local emergency personnel to respond to the scene.

These days, OnStar does more than answer the call for help. Although users can still talk to live operators, the system has become much more automated. Subscribers can download iPhone and Android apps that allow them to unlock and start the car remotely. OnStar will connect via Bluetooth to smartphones. If text messages and Facebook posts are received on a connected phone, OnStar can read them aloud. It can also give turn-by-turn directions.

If a subscriber's car is stolen, the OnStar system will track the vehicle and even slow it down so that police can catch the thief.

Subscriptions to OnStar range from $200 per year for the basic safety plan to about $300 per year for the internet-to-speech features, hands-free calling, and navigation. The first year of service comes free with the purchase of a new GM car.

Although the 15-year-old OnStar system is car-based, General Motors will join the smartphone connection movement later this year with Chevy MyLink. …

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