I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.
In-car communications systems are becoming more and more capable, with entertainment, navigation and engine management technology advancing and converging to power a number of new telematics services which bring a range of benefits to motorists. The integration of GPS with mobile connectivity enables a number of location-based services, while in-car sensors will enable remote monitoring, diagnostics, and collision detection solutions.
Driving adoption of the technology are projects such as the European Commission's eCall initiative, which will see cars involved in accidents automatically contacting emergency centres, sending location data and opening a voice line, enabling communication even when occupants are incapacitated. Once cars have been equipped with telematics equipment, mobile data connectivity, and sensors for emergency purposes, it makes sense for this to then be used to power additional value-added applications.
Enhanced information systems
Leading the way are enhanced navigation solutions, which follow-on from basic on-board GPS systems. The addition of mobile connectivity means that terminals will be able to receive up-to-date traffic and accident reports, enabling motorists to be routed away from traffic jams -- thereby reducing journey time, optimising road capacity use, and cutting emissions from stationary vehicles.
Aiding this is the fact that various sensors will effectively make cars "probes", collecting information without the need for driver input, and delivering it anonymously into central databases for processing. This can include weather information, for example if roads have become slippery through heavy rain or ice, and traffic flow information, including whether vehicles are moving freely or travelling at reduced speeds. Much work was done by the European Union's Global System for Telematics Initiative, through its Enhanced Floating Car Data programme.
Manufacturers are also using in-car sensors to monitor vehicle performance, to detect faults and transmit information to service centres, or to summon roadside assistance when a car is immobilised.
Vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems will provide the opportunity for cars to share information with others in the vicinity in ad-hoc networks, for use in safety and traffic management applications. Cars can share position, speed and heading data, so alerts can be issued when moving too close, and vehicles can issue warnings to others when encountering poor road conditions. Roadside beacons can also be used to feed information into the network at specific locations.
Driving forces here include the Car 2 Car Communication Consortium, which is working to develop a European, and potentially global, industry standard to guarantee cross-manufacturer interoperability, and the Cooperative Vehicle Infrastructure Systems project.
In order for car-to-car communication systems to be effective, a reasonable technology penetration is needed, and there is always the issue that some vehicles will not be suitably equipped. In addition, central to the system is the ability to generate accurate data, and for vehicles to be able to trust the integrity of information received from other vehicles. There are also legal issues to be addressed, including liability if a system provokes an action which results in an accident.
While the technical capabilities of vehicles are improving, there remains one weak link that cannot be improved by electronics -- the driver. There are, however, a number of technologies which can monitor the performance of humans, to ensure that they are not being affected by any maladies.
Toyota/Lexus is already offering cars with a Driver Attention Monitor, which uses and infrared camera to track a driver's eyes, to ensure they are paying attention to the road; Mercedes-Benz has a system called Attention Assist, which monitors fatigue levels based on changes in driving style; and several vendors offer vehicles which alert drivers when straying across lanes on motorways.
Research is also underway into the use of non-intrusive sensors in car steering wheels, seats and seat belts, to monitor vital signs that can indicate illness or stress in a driver -- for example by monitoring the blood sugar levels of diabetics, or assessing changes in heart rates. Early tests indicate that this monitoring can take place without affecting driver concentration.
Market and technology issues
Because in-car telematics systems are primarily deployed through the sales of new vehicles, existing vehicle owners remain out-of-reach until they trade-up to a vehicle that is suitably equipped. With cars having a long economic life, this means that it takes a significant amount of time for technologies to filter down -- nothing like the 12-to-18 month upgrade cycle for mobile phones.
The long economic life-cycle of vehicles also means that vendors are faced with a significant challenge with regard to future-proofing, in order to ensure continued support for already deployed systems. Most car manufacturers are looking to deploy solutions based on open-standards, for example the Java-based middleware promoted by the OSGi Alliance, and the increasing penetration of mobile broadband connectivity will enable more services to be hosted in the cloud, with the in-car terminal taking on a thin-client role.
The sharing of speed and route information will create significant consumer concern, and data protection compliance will also be vital. For example, the technology that enables services such as pay-as-you-go vehicle insurance can also be used to underpin more controversial applications such as usage-based road pricing and average speed monitoring, and consumers will need to be assured that data gathered for one purpose will not then be used for another.
Finally, analyst firm Frost & Sullivan noted that the auto market crisis triggered by the recession has diverted attention from telematics investments. Manufacturers are instead spending their research and development budgets on green technologies, due to the availability of government funding in this field and the need to meet emission targets in the coming years. And a wider slowdown in consumer spending has reduced the number of new vehicles sold, hampering the rollout of new technologies.