The Wired Road Ahead

The engine never made a sound like this before. A kind of a rattle. Or click. Hard to describe, really, but the noise is driving you crazy, and each morning you worry the car's going to conk out before you make it to work. So you take it to your mechanic and--he doesn't hear anything. Quite embarrassed and considerably poorer, you drive home. Next morning, there's that sound again...

What to do? The answer may lie in a button soon to be on your dashboard. Press it, and a little black box in your car that's monitoring just about everything happening in the engine, the drive train, and the electrical system transmits data directly to the car company's computers and mechanics.

While you drive, they figure out what's wrong. If it's serious, they tell you to pull over. If not, they say can give you an ideahow soon you need service, what needs to be done, and where, and give you directions.

That's only one of the many ways your life is about to be changed through the development of what auto-industry techies call telematics--a vast array of wireless connections between you, your car, computers, satellites and, yes, the inevitable Internet.

At the Paris car show this month, telematic teases are on just about every dashboard. They promise improved security, convenience, entertainment, and (what they don't tell you right away) advertising tailored to your every well-recorded taste and whim. There are dashboard PCs and PDAs, voice-activated navigation systems. It's clear you'll soon be talking to your car a lot more, and it may well talk back. It's not just prototype hype. This vision is, in fact, what auto makers' have in mind for the 2002 model year.

Although the technology exists now, car makers first have to get a grip on some fast- changing technologies and business models. So far, the only real world example of telematics is OnStar, a system developed by a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors. OnStar offers a basic diagnosis of your car (though it's not thorough enough to pinpoint the cause of that pesky rattle) and other more vital functions. Introduced in the United States as an option on Cadillacs in 1997, it is now standard equipment on some GM cars and available on most, including Saabs, as a $695 option. (

The OnStar system combines cellphone voice and data transmission with a Global Positioning System receiver and a call center staffed by real live humans 24 hours a day. If your air-bags deploy, a call goes out automatically. If your car is stolen, OnStar can find it for you. The center can send messages to your car, telling it what to do. Say you lock your keys inside. OnStar opens the door by very-remote control.

Can't find your Suburban in the Mall of America parking lot? OnStar flashes the lights and honks the horn. All that for $199 a year. For $200 more, a concierge books hotels for you and gives you directions over the hands-free phone.

Whether the OnStar service will fly in Europe when it's rolled out sometime this fall remains to be seen. However impressive OnStar's capabilities are, it wasn't designed for Europe's more advanced digital networks, and so when it's rolled out in Europe later this fall it won't take full advantage of them. Telematic products on display at the Mondial de l'Automobile 2000, by contrast, are more ambitious and make more elaborate use of the Internet.

The goal is to make your car as safe, secure and comfortable as your home. Entertainment plays a very big role here. You'll download MP3 music while kids in the back seat play interactive games on screens set in the front-seat headrests. When the DVD supply runs low, they might download movies while you drive. Service providers, meanwhile, will pipe in ads tailored to your car: "Want a pizza kids? Tell Mom or Dad to turn right at the next light."

In turning these concepts into tangible offerings, auto makers are proceeding with caution. They are plagued by uncertainty over how best to make use of a bewildering array of new communications technologies. The current disappointment over Wireless Application Protocol hasn't helped. In the past year, Europeans embraced the technology so they could surf the Web with their cell phones, only to find WAP devices awkward to use. Egery, a telematics joint venture between Vivendi and PSA Peugeot Citroen (it was originally called Wappi, which CEO Jean-Marc Monguillet now says is "counterproductive") wants to use a new "packet-switching" system called GPRS, which Monguillet says is "vital" to the venture's success. Before that technology has even taken hold, Egery is eyeing a yet faster, third-generation technology called UMTS.

Car makers also are unsure how to bill their customers for telematics services, which transmit such huge bundles of information so quickly that charging per minute fees no longer makes sense. Since broadband systems such as GPRS and UMTS transmit huge bundles of information very efficiently, it doesn't make sense to charge per minute fees for connecting to the Internet. "It's not the technology anymore," says Keith Hayton, telematics manager at Visteon, a developer of hardware and software products, "it's getting a business model that provides the content that people will pay for." Another question is how much these systems should rely on connecting to big computing resources over the Internet versus computers built right into the cars. On- board hardware forces up the sticker price, but heavy use of wireless communications raises the monthly fee.

Another major concern is security. Telematics promoters promise the information flying to and fro will be closely guarded, but somebody is going to know an awful lot about where you are and when. "Suppose you call in and say your car has been stolen," says OnStar spokesman Bruce MacDonald. Should the company tell you exactly where to find your car? "But suppose what you really want to know is if your wife's at a motel and you want us to honk the horns and flash the lights. That's why we give the local police the location and ask you to contact them." Will future, more heavily automated services exercise such discretion?

They'll certainly be more powerful: they may be able to control your entire car remotely. IBM's Jean-Louis Neyt, who designed a diagnostic system called PRADO, worries that "the first thing a teenage hacker will try to do is shut down every car on the road." And no one wants his car to crash as often as his desktop does. Imagine telling your boss you're late for work because you had to re-boot your car. Is all this worth it just to get rid of that annoying rattle? Will all this really make you feel safer, more secure and more at home on the road? Car makers are asking these questions now. In 2 years consumers will answer them.