What is telematics?
The word telematics technically refers to any system by which a mechanical or electronic device communicates with other devices or with human users over a network. Over the years, the term has come to mean the specific use of on-board communication capabilities in automobiles. General Motors calls their telematics system OnStar, while Ford’s system is called SYNC. At present, Hughes Telematics has not yet announced the brand name of their upcoming system — since Mercedes-Benz does not typically allow third-party branded systems in their cars, whatever name Hughes chooses may only show up in Chrysler vehicles.
The Hughes Telematics system does not represent a revolutionary change from prior telematics systems. There will be additional services and options compared to current services such as OnStar, but Hughes will not instantly change the nature of the telematics industry. Rather, they’re aiming to create a platform of vehicle information and safety services that can be built-on for years to come, offering the flexibility to create new technologies and services as customers demand them.
The key to this plan is in linking all of the various electronic systems already on board most modern vehicles. A car bought in the last 15 years most likely has an engine controller, a body controller, and several other electronic control units (ECUs). Some of these systems communicate with each other to some extent (we’ll explain how shortly), but there isn’t generally one processor than can understand data from all of the various ECUs, and certainly none of them are integrated with your MP3 stereo or LCD viewing screen. The Hughes Telematics system will access and interpret all of the information and make it available to the user.
Hughes Telematics System
The Hughes Telematics system is actually an intricate network of systems and features that can cross-communicate. Here are some of the features being touted by Hughes:
- Roadside assistance, emergency calling, automatic crash notification and stolen vehicle locator service — These safety and security features are similar to those offered by other telematics systems, relying on GPS information and a cell phone connection. In addition to locating a stolen vehicle, the system can shut down a stolen car by cutting off the fuel supply. This feature could reduce the chance of dangerous high speed chases and increase the chances of recovering a stolen vehicle. Emergency calls are handled by Intrado, Inc., a company that is heavily involved in development of the 911 emergency response system in the United States [source: Hughes Telematics]. Intrado’s system will be able to route emergency calls to the nearest available emergency response unit.
- Telematic navigation, turn-by-turn directions, real-time traffic information, traffic camera access — Initially, Hughes Telematics-equipped cars will be able to receive traffic information from Hughes’ own network, which will use numerous sources to develop traffic info. These sources include sensors built into traffic lights and other key locations, toll booths and traffic cameras. A few years down the road, data from each individual car could be incorporated as well, including speed, braking, and steering wheel position. Once all personal information is stripped away from the data, it can then be used to build a more complete and dynamic picture of current traffic conditions. Hughes has partnered with Concentrix Corporation to provide call centers to respond to customer care requests [source: Hughes Telematics].
- Vehicle maintenance reminders, diagnostic health check, recall reminder, remote emissions testing — Currently, the various ECUs on a car can be accessed by a mechanic using an expensive piece of equipment known as a diagnostic scan tool. The Hughes Telematics system will allow the user to access diagnostic information through a Web interface, which can be configured to create maintenance reminders and automatic recall notices. Hughes already participates in a pilot program in California known as the Continuous Smog Check Testing Program. Volunteers with the proper equipment installed on their cars don’t need to visit a mechanic for required emissions testing — emissions levels are tested continuously, and an automatic notification is sent if levels ever fall out of compliance, without the user having to visit a mechanic for regular emissions tests.
- Local information, stocks, weather, sports, news, streaming and storage of music and videos — Using Bluetooth wireless connections, cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players and other electronic devices can be integrated into the on-board telematics system.
Up next, we’ll learn about the Telematics Control Unit.
The Telematics Control Unit
The heart (and brain) of the Hughes Telematics system is the Telematics Control Unit (TCU). The TCU is a small computer that listens in on the communications of other electronic systems in the car, then interprets and disperses that data as necessary. It accomplishes this by piggy-backing onto the Controller Area Network (CAN-bus) a communication system found in all modern cars. The CAN-bus acts as a communications bridge between all of the ECUs within the vehicle. Hughes’ TCU pulls data from the CAN-bus — this simplifies the system because it doesn’t need to be wired into every single ECU in the car. It can get data from any ECU by simply listening in on the CAN-bus network. In some ways, it acts much like a mechanic’s diagnostic scan tool, but it makes the data available to the driver in a number of user-friendly ways that are comprehensible to the average car owner.
The TCU itself is roughly the size and weight of a paperback book. It’s designed with heat and vibration shielding, so it could be mounted anywhere theoretically, including in the engine compartment. Exact positioning depends on the model of car. Hughes has not released any details on the operating system or specific architecture of the unit, although Hughes Telematics President Erik Goldman reported that the processing power would be “in the 500 megahertz (MHz) range,” similar to the ARM11 chips used in other automotive applications. Hughes has announced partnerships with IBM and Oracle, who were involved in developing the hardware and software used in the TCU and in user interface systems [source: Hughes Telematics]. It will carry on-board RAM and was designed with flexibility in mind. Via Bluetooth or possibly a USB port, the device will be able to interface with “virtually every form of human machine,” according to Goldman.
For more Detail: How the Hughes Telematics Device Works