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Telematics – Mixed signals on telematics

When George Orwell wrote 1984 he imagined devices that could read disloyal thoughts and relay them to Big Brother. What he didn’t envisage was an embedded in-car telematics system that gave the company a complete account of every time a salesman downshifted and left a long streak of smoking rubber on the road.

Neither did he envisage screen-based graphics that could pinpoint the exact street and house where your company car was parked last night, the time at which you parked it and the time you returned to it. As the man said: “We have the technology.” It’s just not particularly clear that we want to use it or that we are prepared to have our privacy intruded upon in this kind of way. These kinds of concerns, more than any technical issue, are what is holding up the onward march of telematics into the company car fleet.

However, they will arrive eventually. Ian Curren at BT Cellnet has been involved in studying telematics from both the market acceptance and the theoretical side for the past five years. “Why do auto manufacturers want telematics? For any number of reasons,” he says. For a start, it gives the manufacturer a chance to get close to the customer, since the server-side of in-car telematics will be run directly by the manufacturer. All the embedded sensors that drive the vehicle reporting mechanisms will obviously be the province of the manufacturer and they have no intention of letting the operational side of this get out of their control. The manufacturers will be running the base station, where the information about the car is sent to, and from where services can be disseminated back to in-car users.

Not only does this give the manufacturer a tremendous opportunity to build a relationship with individual customers (something that only their dealers have enjoyed until now), it also promises to generate some very attractive revenues, says Curren. Of course, manufacturers will be segmenting the market into business and consumer users, but the same network will cover both. Adding services that are personalised for specific businesses is, after all, as easy – if not easier – than adding services that are personalised for individuals. In fact, the manufacturers will be combining both approaches and offering business telematics as well as personalised wireless-internet-based in-car services for drivers.

Moreover, Curren argues that it will be impossible for responsible fleet managers in companies to keep telematics out of fleet cars. In the first place they will want the driver profiling and car maintenance details that telematics systems can provide. This will help them encourage responsible driving and bring down the statistic that says company car drivers are 50% more likely than other motorists to be involved in accidents. Second, companies will probably have to provide their fleet drivers, at the very minimum, with access to the kinds of emergency and safety features that are going to spearhead the penetration of telematics into our motoring lives.

As Curren observes, when BT Cellnet began to look into telematics in the context of using it to provide an emergency service, it became clear that there was a great deal that could be done. A telematics system armed with airbag sensor information and other deep structure information from the vehicle can be configured to make an automatic call in the event of an accident. Supported by GPS (global positioning system) information, this would enable the emergency services to pinpoint the site of the crash and to have at least a guestimate of its severity.

Work on this type of system is already advanced. According to Curren, BT Cellnet forged a memorandum of understanding with other participants, including Vodafone, the RAC and telematics operator Trafficmaster, in January 2000, which laid the foundations for a telematics emergency call system for the UK. Accessed through a wireless network, it is already live. It delivers GPS information to the emergency operator that locates at least the wireless cell in which the accident occurred, although in the absence of deep structure integration of telemetry by manufacturers, this system relies on the after-sales market adding sensors to the airbag.

“For business users, the prime area of growth that we envisage for telematics is asset management. We have formed a range of partnerships with companies such as Minor Planet, Trafficmaster and others, which enable us to provide a turnkey solution to corporates,” Curren says.

Although fleet-leasing companies have so far tended to fight shy of deploying telematics, he reckons that many are considering adopting these systems.

“Just now, customers have problems understanding where telematics would add value. Talk about specific services, however, and they become a lot more excited,” he says.

Spencer King, spokesperson for fleet operator Velo is not convinced.

“We are seeing some demand for telematics in commercial fleets, but for company car drivers there are at least three big negatives that concern us,” he says. First, King feels that drivers don’t like the Big Brother aspect of telematics. They don’t want the company knowing where they are or where their car is every minute of the day and night. And they don’t want their driving styles minutely analysed either.

Second, the Human Rights Act guarantees the right to privacy, and there has to be some doubt about where telematics stands with respect to this.

Third, King points out that companies have to accept that all this new information would carry with it a large (and largely unexplored) burden.

What happens, for example if a company car driver is involved in a serious accident? Council for the other party may demand from the company all the telematics-derived records relating to that driver with a view to proving (a) that the driver had a history of excessive speeding and reckless driving and (b) that the company itself was negligent in not clamping down on the driver.

However, this same argument can be stood on its head. Companies may want detailed telematics-derived records on their drivers precisely so they can carry out detailed risk management. Prevention is better than cure, and finding out who your bad drivers are in advance and retraining them is a lot better than finding the company on the wrong end of a damages claim.

Of course, Big Brother aside, telematics and wireless connectivity make it possible to provide drivers with features and facilities that they absolutely will want. In-car navigation is at present a very expensive option. However, as Vincent Geake, chief technology officer with the Yeoman Group points out, if you take the expensive mapping technology out of the car and run it centrally you can create a wireless navigation and mapping service that people can access from mobile phones on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Yeoman’s system uses a combination of highly detailed maps, call-centre operators and a computer-synthesised voice to provide drivers with a range of directional and traffic analysis services. In Yeoman’s service, there is no need for an expensive in-car GPS system to feed location-based information into the system. The driver simply phones the call centre and asks for the service he or she wants. There are no in-car displays and Geake reckons that very shortly you won’t be able to have an in-car display while the vehicle is mobile, even if you want one. “There has already been a case of someone being knocked over by a man trying to type an SMS message on his mobile phone. There is now a EU consultative paper out which envisages disabling all displays in moving vehicles,” he says.

Richard Horsman, CEO of telematics provider CybIT, argues that far from breeching driver privacy, vehicle tracking technology will have an essential role to play in enabling companies to meet their statutory duty-of-care requirements for employees. “The previous home secretary, Jack Straw, has set in motion law reforms that intend to make companies and public bodies criminally liable for deaths due to poor safety management. Employers will increasingly be under pressure to manage their fleets more closely,” he says.

Mike Waters, head of research and development at vehicle leasing and transaction processing specialist Arval PHH agrees. However, he argues that the value proposition on telematics is still being defined. “In simple terms, until we find a service that people are prepared to pay for we won’t move into this market,” he says.

The term “telematics” does not have anything specifically to do with in-car devices. However, the fleet industry uses it to refer to a range of in-car data gathering and data presentation technologies.

Telematics first made its name in truck fleets, with vendors such as Minor Planet providing wireless vehicle tracking and location services.

Today, telematics is in the throes of blending with radio, wireless 3G networks, the internet and GPS to transform the company car as we know it.

The visible sign of a telematics-enhanced car may be a black box tucked under the passenger seat, or maybe an additional set of functions on your mobile phone. Telematics services may be driver focused, such as traffic warnings and route-maps, or they can be invisible, integrated car management systems. The latter gather information on the vehicle’s current state of health from sensors in various key systems, and relay that on to an automated server in the fleet management company for analysis. Another example would be a vehicle tracking service that continually reports the car’s whereabouts to head office.

Telematics can be bound to the car or services can be as portable as the driver’s mobile phone or PDA. The boundary between telematics and standard 3G wireless services is already extremely blurred and will probably vanish altogether over the next few years. In fact the usefulness of the word “telematics”, as opposed to a phrase like “wireless in-car services”, is already dubious.

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