The in-car PC boom that was supposed to be in full swing by now hasn't happened, but that doesn't mean the automotive telematics market is dead. On the contrary, many engineers believe they've found the so-called "killer app"ócell phones in cars.
That may sound unlikely, especially in light of the recent demise of Ford's telematics venture, Wingcast LLC. But a growing number of automotive industry engineers are coalescing around the idea that the ultimate application for vehicles may not be Internet access, route guidance, or concierge services. Rather, it may be the simple act of talking on the phone.
Later this year, engineers from Chrysler Group, IBM, Johnson Controls, Intel, and AT&T Wireless will roll out the simplest method yet for talking on a cell phone while driving. Their technique uses Bluetooth radio frequencies to enable handheld cell phones to communicate with the so-called "head unit" in the dashboard, which stores and processes simple voice recognition commands. Using their Bluetooth-based systems, drivers can lay their handheld phones on the front seat of the car while they talk. The universal technology permits Bluetooth-enabled phones to synchronize with the vehicle architecture over radio frequencies. Using it, drivers will be able to talk through a microphone located near the rear-view mirror, and listen to their phone conversations through the car's speakers.
Intel, IBM, and Johnson Controls are developing the electrical architecture and software backbone for the system. Called UConnect, it will launch this fall as a dealer-installed option in certain 2003 model-year Chryslers, Dodges, and Jeeps.
Chrysler isn't alone in its effort to bring the handheld phone into the vehicle, however. In May, Ford Motor Co. announced that it, too, will allow consumers to use handheld phones in its vehicles. A special adaptor and docking station developed by Cellport Systems (Boulder, CO) incorporates hardware and software interfaces that enable any brand of cell phone to synchronize with the electrical architecture on selected Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles.
Nissan and three other automakers outside the U.S. are also said to be engineering Cellport's universal system into their vehicles. And other companies, including Motorola, are laying plans for telematics systems.
Support for the concept has quietly spread throughout the industry. OnStar is said to be looking at ways to allow new customers to employ a universal concept, and Ford has acknowledged that the universal method may have more appeal than the embedded model used by its now-defunct Wingcast operation.
"This is probably the strongest telematics concept we've seen to date," notes Dan Garretson, senior automotive analyst for Forrester Research (Cambridge, MA). "We expect a lot of automakers to eventually do this."