14 November 2008
Technology never stands still, and nowhere is this more evident than in the field of telematics. Tom Webster reports on the industry's latest developments
Only a few years ago, your car telling you it needed its tyres pumped up was as unlikely as your cat telling you it needed its claws clipping. Yet under-bonnet technology has moved on to the extent that such things are now available even in sub-£15,000 cars.
Such is the rate of development, the area of aftermarket telematics is already moving from just identifying problems with the car to also diagnosing problems with its driver. Mainstream fleet cars of the future could be able to scan its driver's eyes and fingerprints. Initially, it has been suggested, the technology would be used to monitor driver fatigue but the possibilities are endless. For example, it could monitor hours spent behind the wheel by an individual member of staff, or even prevent an unauthorised person from making off with the vehicle.
Technology like this is, for the mainstream market, still some way off, even if premium brand car makers are developing it for their most expensive models. But there's plenty coming in the meantime according to the telematics companies.
Theft and traffic
"The smaller the better" is how Andy Walters, managing director of Quartix describes his company's approach to the size of its tracking units. The idea is to make it difficult for thieves to first locate then disconnect the units when stealing a car. But there is a downside: thieves have been known to put the car on the back of a lorry and disconnect the battery if they can't find the unit.
The immediate future should bring a solution to this problem, however, that will exist as long as tracking systems rely on car batteries for power. Quartix is launching a product that will continue to send reports on the location of the car for up to two weeks after it's been disconnected from the battery. The reports are less frequent - going only once every half an hour rather than the usual minute-by-minute updates - but are enough to help the car to be recovered.
Where Quartix's development focuses on increasing security, TomTom Work's latest proposed technology concentrates on reducing time spent on the road.
The satnav company, in collaboration with Vodafone, is launching a new system that assesses the speed of the traffic based on mobile phone signals. Called HD Traffic, it records the speed at which Vodafone sim cards are travelling and uses that information as the basis for its traffic reports.
Using what Jeremy Gould, TomTom Work's UK sales manager, calls "a massive pool of roaming data", it will be able to provide stats on volumes of traffic at various times of the day, thus helping fleet managers in journey planning. The advantage the system has over rivals is that it is able to provide data on the country's minor road network as well as on major routes.
It's not all about new technology, though, and the thinking is that some current telematics technology can be better exploited.
Christian Payne, Minorplanet's head of marketing, predicts that the accelerometer will come to greater prominence. The device measures forces exerted on the vehicle in three directions to give an indication of how it has been driven, especially around corners, and it's believed the data it provides will become more important, as fleets increase their attention on duty of care and effective driver training.
Another area under-utilised is that of data related to fuel economy. More accurate mpg calculations and fuel usage tracking are already available, but only van fleets are really using it to its full potential. Digicore Tom O'Connor, managing director, feels fuel is a big topic for telematics companies and the car industry as a whole, and that this technology could soon migrate over.
"It would help residual values," he says. "If you can prove a car has been driven responsibly then it'll surely help it to sell."
Payne agrees with the increased importance of fuel data, predicting "more specific reports on fuel and engine behaviour". These more detailed reports could provide information such as a breakdown of acceleration, the number of gear changes, and stats related to braking.
One advance that exists on the Continent but isn't yet being employed over here is an accident alert system called European eCall. It automatically contacts the emergency services in the event of an accident, sending details from airbag deployment and impact sensors, and both O'Connor and David Yates of leasing company ALD Automotive believe it will eventually make its way to the UK.
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