This article appeared in www.extremetech.com on March 13, 2015
Telematics makes your car safer, keeps you from getting lost, summons roadside assistance at the press of a button, routes you around accidents, auto-dials 911 if you’re in the accident, and starts your EV charging at 2 a.m. when rates are cheapest. Those are a few of the features that make up vehicle telematics. But what is telematics? For most users, telematics means navigation, communications, safety, security, and increasingly infotainment.
Basically, telematics is a crash-resistant black box that receives wireless information, information more advanced than broadcast radio, and does something useful with it. Telematics doesn’t have to include two-way communication, but most of the good stuff involves going both ways. Usually there’s an embedded cellular modem as with GM’s OnStar. Some of the telematics work can be handled by your connected smartphone, as happens with Ford Sync. Here’s our backgrounder on vehicular telematics.
OnStar as the prototype for telematics
The best way to explain telematics is to describe OnStar, the original passenger car telematics systems, first announced by General Motors in 1995. The automaker mounts a cellular data modem, GPS, a backup battery, and connections to sensors. The box goes in the back of the car, shielded from most crashes. It connects to a roof-mounted antenna that has more range than your mobile phone has.
The best-known feature is automatic crash notification (ACN). When a vehicle sensor reports a significant accident, OnStar sends that information to an OnStar call center, which then makes a voice call reporting the accident and location to one of the nation’s PSAPs, or public-safety answering points, essentially a 911 service. At the same time, OnStar opens a voice link to the car to get more information from the occupants and necessary and reassure frightened or confused occupants until help arrives.
OnStar is used most often for navigation, sending a destination to the car from a smartphone or web browser, or having it looked up and sent to the car by the call center. Remote door unlock is also common, for times when you lock your keys inside. Over time, OnStar and other services are adding low-overhead, high-perceived-value features such as monthly vehicle diagnostics reports. OnStar also rolls in data services such as weather, sports scores, stocks, movie times, and traffic information.
You pay for the service, typically $20 a month or $200 a year, or $30/$300 for concierge level telematics where you can ask a call center staffer (“advisor”) to do things such as look up an address and send that to your navigation system. Over time, OnStar is moving more functions to virtual advisors (voice recognition systems) and to smartphone apps. Now the owner can remotely unlock the car in a couple seconds, where a call to an advisor might take a couple minutes.
Telematics: the core services
Most every car with telematics has a core of common features. These are the ones you’ll either use a lot or use to summon help. Most will be on the base-level telematics subscription. You get anywhere from six months to 10 years of free service; one year is most common. Access may be via a single button to press on the mirror or just above on the headliner, or there may be a separate Help/SOS button and another for general assistance.
Automatic collision notification (also emergency crash notification). This automatically notifies the call center and the call center summons help. Because the embedded modem is protected, it continues to work even after severe accidents. It uses land-based cell towers, not satellites, for two-way communication, so there’s a rare chance the car can’t reach the call center. But the roof- or deck-mounted cellular antenna gives the system one or two bars more of signal strength than your mobile phone.
Emergency assistance. Press the Help or SOS button to summon aid for an emergency involving your car and occupants that isn’t crash-related.
Good Samaritan assistance. That’s when you see an accident or emergency involving others, and press push the Help or SOS button.
Roadside assistance. If you have a mechanical breakdown, flat tire, or run out of fuel, press the Help or general button on the mirror or headliner to summon help. Because there’s embedded GPS, you don’t have to guesstimate where you are.
Vehicle diagnostics / vehicle health report. Once a month, you get an e-mail reporting the condition of your car. You can also order up diagnostics at any time and have it sent to your dealer. It helps avoid breakdowns and builds service at the dealership. This is an example of a telematics feature that has little added cost to the automaker.
According to statistics published by OnStar, the top three telematics interactions are remote commands to the car from a smartphone or web browser, monthly diagnostics reports, and turn-by-turn navigation requests. For GM cars, those amount to 3 million per month in North America. Excluding that, the most used features are remote door unlock, roadside assistance, Good Samaritan, emergency (button press), and automatic crash notification. For every automatic crash response, there are 1.5 button presses for an emergency or Good Samaritan emergency (each), five requests for roadside assistance, 15 remote door unlocks, 750 navigation requests or downloads, and 1,000 monthly diagnostics reports sent out.
Navigation and streaming info as telematics services
You don’t need a two-way connection for telematics to happen. Navigation is the leading example of one-way telematics. Onboard turn-by-turn navigation uses signals from GPS satellites to fix the car’s location. If you’re in the car and get operator or voice-response help to find a destination and download it, that would be a two-way process. If you set up a route on your phone or PC and then use send-to-car, that’s effectively download-only: using the car’s onboard modem to receive the route info and then satellites for positioning.
You can also get traveler services. Most are a data stream from satellite radio services (some of it available even if you don’t subscribe to SiriusXM radio) or from terrestrial (AM/FM) radio. What looks like two-way interaction is mostly you or your passenger picking out the info you want from the fire hydrant beamed from the satellite. It includes:
Gas price finder. The locations of gas stations, hours (sometimes), and prices for all grades of fuel are shown. Then you can press a button and have navigation take you there. Some, but not all, cars give preference to the stations ahead of you on your route; why go back five miles when you’ve got enough fuel to go 75 miles farther? Many let you restrict the search to diesel if that’s what your car burns.
Local search. Restaurants, nightspots, hotels, and malls are embedded in the map data. Two-way local search gets you more up to date information. Embedded smartphone apps such as Yelp provide ratings. Some cars offer Google Local Search although when you can use it (driving, stopped) varies by automaker.
Sports/news/stock information. You choose what teams, stocks, and news you want to follow. Typically a crawler at the bottom of your car’s LCD shows the info. If you have satellite radio, you can also tune to a specific channel for an audio feed of traffic and weather in the nation’s larger cities.
Streaming media. Typically, Pandora and other streaming audio are received by your smartphone, which is tethered to the car by USB cable or Bluetooth. Some cars with onboard telematics are embedding Pandora so you have a music alternative even if you don’t have your phone.
Text messages / memo display. Text messages, memos, sometimes e-mails received on your phone or tablet can be presented to the driver. The automaker chooses whether you see a text or hear a synthesized voice when the car is moving. To respond, there a small batch of canned messages: Message received, running 10 minutes late, I will respond later. Some automakers you create voice to text messages in reply; others won’t because they don’t want you reading the message draft on-screen, let alone trying to correct it. Other automakers do.
Traffic information, re-routing. This may be the most useful feature. Even if you aren’t paying for OnStar or similar, the traffic information is sent by satellite or terrestrial radio. The services are pretty good now at telling you where traffic tie-ups are. They’re less good at telling you if the detour really saves time, because there’s less information about traffic flow on smaller side roads.
Weather information. You can see a weather map on-screen, see the forecast for your destination, or get the current weather. There will be severe weather alerts as pop-ups. If you subscribe to satellite radio, you can get weather info for major cities as part of the audio broadcast.
Most cars have updatable center stack software, so you can get new car-based services even without buying a new navigation map. Many buyers balk at new map software discs when the price is $200.
Other telematics services
There are two dozen other telematics services. Some enable the automaker and dealer to stay in closer touch with you and steer you to that dealer (not an independent shop) for service work and to that brand (not a competitor) when it’s time to trade in.
Convenience calling. Forget your cellphone? You may be able to use the telematics modem to make voice calls and pay by the minute. It’s a convenience for you, call quality may be better because of the external antennas. Per minute costs are expensive, from 25 to 50 cents a minute.
Enhanced automatic crash notification (E-ACN). Research done by BMW and by GM makes extensive use of sensor data in crashes to predict when the risk of serious injury is high, even if the crash victim doesn’t know it. BMW uses the example of a side impact that tears the aorta. The person steps out of the car and feels pretty good … until he keels over. Automakers want to send that predictive information to the first responders and, if there are enough warning signs, urge them to send a medevac helicopter right now. If the Center for Disease Control (CDC) gets enough supporting data, it could order responders to, at the least, immediately dispatch an ambulance rather than wait for police to arrive and assess the situation.
Geofencing / vehicle speed, location, alerts. Usually employed by parents with newly minted drivers, you get alerts if the vehicle exceeds a certain speed or goes beyond a set distance. Geofencing is in its infancy: You want to know not when the car is going faster than 50 mph, but when it’s exceeding the posted limit by 10 mph for more than a minute, or by 15-plus mph at any time. You also want to draw a fence on a map rather than choose a circle of X miles, and within that circle you want to be notified if the car is parked near the house of the boyfriend you really don’t like, or if it has been more than two hours at the strip mall with the Starbucks. All that is possible — just not yet.
Location sharing. An applet lets you press a button and send to a smartphone or other car your current location and, if navigation is running, estimated time of arrival.
POI search, POI communication. Through the POIs, or points of interest, embedded in your map data, you can find a hotel or restaurant. Highlight the phone number and you can call; highlight the address and it becomes your destination. Alternatively, applets running on your phone and replicated on the center screen let you use real-time search with current data.
Remote horn/lights/start. You can flash your lights in a parking lot from 100 feet away with your remote keyfob. You can do that from farther away via the automaker’s smartphone app. Even when the car is off, the telematics unit is listening.
Stolen vehicle tracking/assistance/slowdown. Your car is stolen, you call your telematics service and the cops, and together they can track the car and even slow it down (gradually). This helped police locate the Mercedes-Benz hijacked (allegedly) by the Tsarnaev brothers in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. To track the car, you have to file a stolen vehicle report with the police and sign it (under penalty of false swearing), to avoid harassment situations where you just want to know where your two-timing spouse is. The call center won’t do this for you, not wanting to be subpoenaed in a matrimonial case. For all of the cool factor involved, this is rarely used.
Vehicle locator. It’s like Find My iPhone, but for the whole car. You use a smartphone app or Web browser. Typically you want to find your car in a huge parking lot, verify a teen driver is where he or she claims to be, or do the same for your partner (next step, marriage counseling?). This the automaker is happy to let you do, and isn’t worried about the legal consequences, because they’re not involved.
Vehicle alarm notification. If your car alarm sounds, you get a text alert. You then choose to call 911 (because of so many false alarms, the car won’t call directly) or investigate for yourself.
Vehicle software updates. Your telematics unit needs a software update. Now it’s possible to to avoid going to the dealership, or getting aUSB update key in the mail as Ford did to improve 2011-era functionality of Sync. Now when the car is parked, even if it’s off, you can get an over-the-air update via the telematics module modem (without paying for data overages), sometimes via your smartphone connected to the car (you’d pay for the data). Ford Sync 3 embeds a WiFi chip in the Sync module and it gets the download that way. Over time, the OTA updates will expand from the telematics or Sync module to new navigation maps to engine controllers.
Navigation (destination guidance). This is your car’s navigation system. Honda calls it satellite-linked navigation, which is correct, as long as you remember it’s only one-way, GPS satellite down to the car. You’re not communicating back to the heavens.
Telematics premium concierge services
For an extra $10-$15 a month, you get a live person to talk to, ask for destination downloads, or perhaps make dinner reservations on your behalf. This is a convenience for people who just can’t figure out navigation systems (a large population if you include the people who design them), hate that neither driver nor passenger can key in a destination while driving, or just want a little more luxury when they’re already paying $699 for the monthly lease. Each automaker has a different name for this level; generically it’s called a concierge service.
4G, WiFi, streaming video, web browsing in the car
3G telematics modems are evolving to 4G modems. Audi jumped out early. GM is now equipping virtually every car it sells with 4G (excepting some fleet cars). That’s a godsend if the kids in the back seat are streaming movies to their tablets. 4G also allows for a multi-user WiFi hotspot in the car that won’t bog down.
A handful of cars offer a web browser in the center stack LCD, at least when the car is parked. Speed benefits from a 4G connection.
3G will give way to 4G on most telematics modems over the next 2-3 years, because that’s what car-buyers want. 3G is cheaper for the automaker to install, down near $100 wholesale cost, and it is equally good at sending out an emergency crash notification. Automakers love 4G because there’s more revenue stream to go along with the additional bandwidth.
EVs, hybrids, plug-in hybrids need telematics
Every electric vehicle and plug-in hybrid needs telematics, and it’s typically built into the base price even if the automaker doesn’t make telematics standard on its gas or diesel cars. Most hybrids benefit from telematics if you only want to know if its smaller battery is fully charged.
From your phone or Web browser, you can ask the car to report its level of charge, set a delayed charge for middle of the night when rates may be lower, or pre-heat the car using grid power just before you drive off.
One-way (to the car) telematics services
Some telematics features don’t need an embedded two-way modem, just a radio, GPS module, navigation, or satellite radio receiver.
Automatic time and date setting. GPS satellites broadcast incredibly accurate time-of-day information. Dive into the Setup tab on the center stack LCD and one of the choices may be, “Automatically set time and date.” Check it. If your dashboard clock reads 8:22, you know it’s 8:22.
Hands-free calling. This means the car embeds Bluetooth, a microphone, and a connection to the car speakers for access by your mobile phone. It doesn’t require OnStar or similar. Virtually every car will get Bluetooth except maybe on the bare bones trim line of sub-$25,000 cars.
GPS / satellite navigation signals. These tell your car exactly where it is, its elevation, compass heading, and speed. A car might embed a satellite receiver even without GPS or an OnStar-like service. It makes your car’s trip computer super-accurate.
Satellite radio data services. Satellite radio from SiriusXM broadly falls within the realm of telematics. News, sports, stocks, traffic information, and weather as data (as well as audio) can all be sent via satellite. Most of that information can be sent by AM/FM radio-frequency signals. The car caches the data for the local region and ignores the rest.
3G vs. 4G vs. connected cellphone
For most every service, 3G cellular service is good enough. You don’t need super-fast data rates to send a remote door unlock, or tell the PSAP the geo-location of your crash. You do want 4G if you’ll be streaming video and audio.
3G telematics is still a good bang-for-the-buck choice because it’s cheap. Some analysts say a 3G system comprising the telematics module and external antenna costs the automaker less than $100. A potential downside is the uncertainty over whether 3G cellular will still exist in the dozen years the average new car is on the road before scrappage. When GM switched from analog to digital OnStar, it offered customers a subsidized upgrade path if they signed up for several years of service.
You typically won’t get a choice of 3G or 4G in your next car. It’s one or the other, and if an automaker offers both, it’s because the model-by-model changeover isn’t complete. Nor do you get a choice of cellular carriers. GM used to use Verizon and you couldn’t specify an AT&T or T-Mobile module for your car; now it offers AT&T, take it or leave it, and you can’t get Verizon. If you have the same mobile carrier as your car, it’s possible to put the fixed monthly costs on your lease or loan, and the variable data costs on your cellphone bill. OnStar in the earlier era let Verizon customers use their monthly allotment of minutes for OnStar voice calling. No more; it’s a huge moneymaker for GM.
Ford Sync’s telematics module: your smartphone
Ford Sync, announced in 2008, let your smartphone take the place of an integrated telematics module. Apps on your phone can be replicated on the center stack and controlled by the car’s knobs and steering wheel controls. Sync even does emergency crash notification (ACN) as long as the cellphone remains connected to the car. It uses crash sensors built into the car to trigger the ACN call. Critics wondered how it could be as safe as built-in ACN, but never supplied much in the way of data. Since then, several other automakers provide phone-based ACN on models without telematics.
The Sync telematics module is unsuited to EVs and PHEVs that must have always-available communications to control charging. It’s also harder to justify as the price of onboard telematics hardware is so inexpensive, and when at least automaker charges only $100 a year for ACN.
Ford’s upscale sibling, Lincoln, is moving away from phone-based telematics starting with the 2015 Lincoln MKC. It uses embedded telematics and offers a concierge program.
Who offers telematics? What does it cost?
General Motors is the biggest provider of car telematics systems and claims 7 million cars equipped worldwide, not all of them with a current subscription. Most high-end automakers embed telematics in all or virtually all cars sold in the US. Many others do as well.
Automakers with telematics include: Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Ford via Sync, Infiniti, Jaguar, Lexus, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, Mini, Nissan, Porsche, Rolls-Royce, Subaru, Toyota, Volvo, and Volkswagen.
The most typical plan is $200 a year or $20 a month for basic services, $30 a month or $300 a year for more features including an operator to help with things such as finding an address and sending the destination automatically to the car. You get 90 days to three years of free service to see if you like it. OnStar and some others are going to three levels of service and raising the cost of the concierge level to as much as $350 a year.
Hyundai, GM and BMW provide some of the best values in telematics. When Hyundai launched BlueLink in 2013, it offered a basic service called Connected Care for $80 a year, now $100. For less than $10 a month, you get crash notification, emergency assistance, roadside assistance, and vehicle health reports. You need a second $100 plan to get remote (smartphone, Web browser) access to the car and a third $100 plan for concierge services. At the same time, BMW made its core BMW Assist service free for 10 years and in doing so worked around a potential image problem that affects the industry: If there’s a working telematics system in the car that has no paid subscription, should the car call for help anyway or let the guy fend for himself?
GM OnStar now offers three service levels. The Protection plan is free for five years, then $20 a month or $200 a year. It’s the old entry Safe & Sound plan with stolen car services stripped out: stolen vehicle locater, stolen vehicle slowdown, remote ignition block. The new Security plan ($25/$250) adds back the stolen vehicle services. The premium Guidance plan (formerly Directions & Connections; $35/$350) operator-assisted destination lookup and downs, hotel bookings, and 30 minutes of hands-free calling.
To that you can add an OnStar 4G data plan ranging from $15 for 1GB to $50 for 5GB, plus daily or yearly data passes. You can buy OnStar hands-free voice calling minutes for 30 to 40 cents a minute depending on how many minutes you buy at once. (A prepaid calling plan for mobile phones can be as little as 5 cents a minute.) Tracking your car’s location (OnStar Family Link) is another $4 a month.
Telematics in trucks, shipping containers
Telematics in business involves knowing the location of trucks, cars, trailers (the 40-foot box that makes up the storage end of an 18-wheeler), and cargo ship containers. An always-on system always knows the location and speed of any vehicle. The nearest repair truck or police vehicle can be dispatched to an incident without having to radio the fleet and asks who’s available. It shows which drivers are speeding a little or a lot and by how much, or if they’re taking too-long lunch breaks or driving more hours that federal regs allow. A tractor trailer may have a telematics transponder in the tractor (where the driver is) and one or more in the trailer where there’s a load of TV sets, a shipment of drugs (pharmaceutical drugs) — virtually anything that has value.
In a business setting, at least in the US, privacy is not an issue. The company has the right to know what its employees are up to so long as the telematics unit and trackers measure location, speed, stopped or moving. As the manager of a New York State social services agency put it, “I don’t care about someone who drives an extra 25 miles, probably for a personal reason. I do care when his route should be 150 miles and he’s driving 300 in a day.”
Here are some aspects of telematics that may not be clear.
Satellite data is two-way? GPS satellites and satellite radio music and data are streamed one-way, down to the car, but not back up. So if you’re in a crash, the car may not be able to connect. Because there’s an external antenna, you can go farther into the wilderness before your car loses signal.
Does telematics work everywhere? Satellite based services work everywhere you get a cell signal, which is all of the US and most of North America when you’re not in a garage or under a bridge, or sometimes in the shadow of a high rock wall along the road.
Cellular-based services are at the mercy of cellular coverage. Sort of: Because of the external antenna, services such as automatic crash notification work farther into the wilderness, even after your phone loses signal. That makes some people wrongly believe the car has a two-way satellite link. Eventually, you will lose coverage, in the same places where there are few other vehicles passing by that could render assistance.
I have to buy telematics with my car. Generally, that’s the case. GM’s OnStar does offer a retrofit system called OnStar FMV (“for my vehicle”) for all brands. It has been a soft seller and the hardware, housed in a replacement inside rear mirror, sells for as little as $75 plus installation. It offers most OnStar services other than remote door unlock and remote engine start.
Check out our ExtremeTech Explains series for more in-depth coverage.
This article appeared originally at: https://www.extremetech.com/extreme/201026-what-is-vehicle-telematics