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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, C@LL CENTER CRM Solutions

[November 29, 2000]

Got A Feel For My (Web-Enabled) Automobile

Have you ever been behind a driver while he's on his cell phone, and who seems to be paying more attention to everything else except his driving? You know: the lane-swerving, 23 mph in a 55 zone guy who's holding the phone with one hand and gesticulating operatically with the other, to the point where you wonder if he remembers he's supposed to be operating the steering wheel.

A year or two ago, when I read about the concept of Web-enabling cars so drivers can access Internet-based services on the road, I reacted with instant horror. I see many people on a daily basis who don't seem to be capable of chewing gum and driving safely at the same time. High technologies will soon be available to make sure drivers can talk on the phone, hear their horoscopes read to them, buy and sell stock, watch sports replays and check the headlines, all while joyously weaving along the highways and byways of your town. You'll be innocently driving along behind them -- unconnected, white-knuckled, and in mortal terror for your life.

This technology doesn't strike me as a very good idea. Even after finding out more about the services proposed by automakers and hardware and software vendors, I'm still not sure about it. The concept, however, is pretty groovy in the abstract.

It's Called Telematics
This is a word you'll be hearing more frequently in the near future. Telematics refers to the concept of in-vehicle communications systems that can do everything from checking your e-mail (and reading it to you), to keeping you informed regarding your day's appointments, to plotting the best route for you to get where you're supposed to be. In its earliest inception, it's merely a matter of a hands-free, voice-activated cellular phone. In its future glory, it might consist of a car that drives itself to the gas station when it's low on fuel, quietly debiting your charge card for the price of the gas while you sit in the front seat, doing some hands-free daydreaming about your impending vacation to Maui. Whether or not all this automation will lead us to become flipper-fingered non-thinkers with no practical skills is an issue I'll leave to the social scientists. In the meantime, I'll tell you about some options available today to enable you to have a vehicle that James Bond would salivate over.

General Motor's OnStar
You've probably seen the Batmobile-themed commercials for GM's OnStar service. An OnStar agent will provide driving directions if you are lost (the vehicles are equipped with Global Positioning System, or GPS, capabilities), or the location of the nearest gas station. The service offers remote diagnostics for the car if there's a problem and a warning light flashes on. An OnStar agent can remotely unlock your car for you if you flake out and lock your keys inside, and in an emergency situation (if the service senses that the airbags have deployed), OnStar will call for emergency or roadside assistance for you.

In 2001, GM plans to launch the next-generation of OnStar in the form of OnStar Virtual Advisor Net. The system will enable the driver to have access to an automated attendant that will place voice-activated cell phone calls, retrieve and read e-mail, and browse the Internet, reading the desired information back to the driver. Aside from the hardware and software involved, the cars will come equipped with special microphones imbedded in the steering wheel or the roof above the driver's head.

Ford And Qualcomm Will Offer Wingcast
Wingcast is a company jointly launched by Ford and Qualcomm to develop and market wireless mobility and information services that will be deployed in certain Ford cars and trucks beginning in late 2001, with the ultimate goal being to offer the service in all of Ford's automobiles by 2004. Wingcast will form alliances with appropriate hardware, software and services vendors to develop a telematics service that will enable drivers to navigate, entertain and inform themselves via the wireless Internet, using Qualcomm's Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) wireless technology. Nissan is also reportedly cooperating in the venture, aiming to install the service in many of its luxury cars in the near future.

Sun Boasts Of A "Java Browser With Tires"
Computerworld, an IDG.net site, reported that Sun Microsystems chairman and CEO Scott McNealy has called for an industry-wide adoption of two in-vehicle network platforms based on Sun hardware to enable mobile wireless services. McNealy recently made this announcement at Convergence 2000, which is considered the foremost automotive electronics conference. The first type would be a platform enabling driver services similar to those offered by OnStar and Wingcast. The second type consists of an in-vehicle network platform that would keep track of each and every mechanical function of the vehicle, informing the driver when service is required and allowing for easier diagnosis of the problems if anything goes wrong.

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better
Not to be left out, Microsoft also made an announcement at Convergence 2000 detailing the introduction of its Microsoft Windows CE for Automotive version 3 operating system. Windows CE for Automotive version 3 is a primary component of Microsoft's recently announced Microsoft Car.NET Framework, its infrastructure technology designed specifically for computing and communications in automobiles. A collection of auto-industry suppliers have signed on to develop systems and software applications based on the Microsoft platform.

The Downside
International Data Corporation has forecasted the telematics market to grow to $42 billion by 2010 from $1 billion in 1998. If you believe these numbers, you can assume that many, if not most, of us will have telematics capabilities of some form in our cars within the next ten years. By some estimates, up to a quarter of all automobile crashes in the U.S. are due to some type of distraction on the part of the driver. Many telematics industry critics are quick to point out that a driver speaking an e-mail to his brother Phil in San Francisco does not have his full attention on the road.

In the same way that many towns and states are drawing up legislation to prevent the use of hand-held cellular phones while the car is in motion, it is likely that in the future we'll see similar legislation enacted to prevent drivers from, say, playing Tetris while driving, or getting involved in a heated chat session on the civil rights of lemurs.

The second downside I can think of was spawned by a quote from Sun Microsystems' chairman and CEO Scott McNealy. The Computerworld summary of his speech indicated that one of the uses for the Sun platform could be to provide information to insurance companies about the speed at which the car was traveling just prior to a crash. What? I now need to worry about my car ratting me out to my insurance company? I look forward with grim amusement to the day courts start issuing subpoenas to a defendant's Jeep.

For now, I plan to continue my blessedly quiet commute to and from work each day, listening to the radio and knowing that my car is still the one place I don't have to check my e-mail or talk to anyone.

But it sure would be cool to be able to play Tetris in traffic.

The author may be contacted at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com, but her car is unavailable for comment at this time.

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