Car Genies

On the way to your hotel in an unfamiliar town, your car dies after plunging into a pothole obscured by a puddle in the road.

You could pull out your cell phone (provided you have one), call directory assistance and ask for the nearest garage.

Or you could reach up and push a button above your rearview mirror and initiate a wireless connection to a service centre. A trusty agent – talking to you through a microphone embedded in the windshield visor – figures out where you are and immediately dispatches a tow truck to the rescue.

For the past two decades, companies in the wireless market, such as Motorola, Qualcomm and Trimble Navigation Ltd., have been researching the emerging field of in-vehicle computer technology, or telematics. Telematics provides two-way wireless communications services between a car and a service centre through a combination of cellular technology and a global positioning system (GPS). Motorola’s system, for example, includes a cellular console with three buttons: one for emergency assistance, one for roadside assistance, and one for navigation and concierge information.

Analysts predict a healthy growth in the industry: The number of systems installed in cars was 56,000 in 1998 and will reach 181,000 by 2000, according to The Strategis Group, a Washington, D.C.-based telecom research company.

Originally developed for the trucking and commercial fleet industries in the 1980s, telematics began to appear in high-end consumer cars in the mid-1990s: Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln was one of the first. In the future, software vendors such as Microsoft Corp. envision telematics as a way to make driving more entertaining and productive, with voice-enabled e-mail and video-on-demand for passengers. (Automakers are not delivering the Internet to drivers just yet, because it’s dangerous to surf and drive and because digital wireless networks are too immature to handle Internet traffic.)

The technology is appealing, not just for its convenience but for its safety features, which include remote engine diagnosis and emergency response. If the pothole disaster had deployed air bags, for example, a sensor would trigger an automatic call for an ambulance.

The systems today are still pricey, adding from US$700 to US$2,000 to the cost of a new car, with basic service fees beginning at around US$15 per month. However, the price for a basic telematics system will plummet to around US$200 in five years, according to Stephan Beckert, a senior consultant with Strategis. Telematics is already finding its way into the average family car. General Motors Corp., for example, offers its OnStar telematics system (partially based on Motorola technology) in 31 different models – from the basic Chevy Lumina to the high-end Cadillac Escalade sport utility vehicle. If it can brew our morning cup of coffee too, we’re sold.