Telematics Is Still Just Around the Bend

eNews and Views: If you are looking to zoom down the highway with a load of really cool telematic gizmos in your car there are plenty to hook into. But if you want to connect your company's services or sell your company's products via telecommunica

If you are looking to zoom down the highway with a load of really cool telematic gizmos in your car there are plenty to hook into. But if you want to connect your companys services or sell your companys products via telecommunications-enabled computers in automobiles, get ready for a long ride. It appears that the road to widespread adoption of telematics will be a long one.

Telematics use in some U.S. automobiles is not insignificant. General Motors boasts 1.3 million subscribers to its satellite-assisted OnStar telematics services. But most of the dozen or so services offered through OnStar are geared toward safety and convenience (air bag notification, emergency services dispatch, remote engine diagnostics and the like), not commerce.

If you consider who is selling these services it should be no surprise. Automakers dont work at Internet speed and it can take years to gain mindshare among the companies that will have to really push the services--not to mention the consumers who are expected to eventually shell out the bucks.

KPMG this week released a survey of 103 executives at auto manufacturers and suppliers that said that some 71 percent believed that emergency notification will be their highest priority over the next five years when selling telematics. Few were interested in delivering stock quotes or sports scores to harried drivers (which omission is, in itself, a sort of a safety feature).

In fact, those surveyed put telematics as a lower priority than even fuel-cell technology and drive-by-wire electronics. When automakers peg a technology as a lower priority than alternative fuel sources you know it is way down on their to-do lists.

One reason there appears to be less-than-revolutionary enthusiasm behind telematics is that the technology has not been standardized. There are plenty of companies working on the operating systems and the wireless communications technologies, but nothing is set in stone. Some are using satellites, others are looking to Bluetooth wireless communications. At Comdex, Mercedes-Benz showed off a system that used DSRC (dedicated short-range communications) broadband technology that transmits short bursts of data at vehicles as they drive past high-bandwidth receivers.

Voice recognition software, which many see as a critical component of any user-friendly telematics interface, is getting better, but there are still kinks to be worked out.

Microsoft weighed in last month with its versions of Windows CE operating system for the automotive industry. It remains to be seen whether this will muddy the waters or spark broader adoption. One thing Microsoft could do is create a standard way to upgrade telematics systems. That is a big stumbling block: Even if companies want to develop new applications for telematics they need to get in practically at the ground floor of development to make sure that their systems work with the hardware and software that makes it into the car.

Another reason telematics is still just barely making it onto the radar is that there hasnt been a killer e-commerce application. Some consumers will pay something for improved safety and roadside assistance. Others will pay a little bit more to make their commutes a little more bearable. But almost no one will pay to receive sports scores when they can get them for free and in a format they are comfortable with on their car radios.

Analysts put the telematics industry at $20 billion or more within a decade--a twentyfold increase from where it is now. That might happen, but from where I sit the roadmap is not clear.

E-mail eWEEK Department Editor John McCright