Volkswagen
This navigation system prototype incorporates efforts from three companies. Volkswagen is working with Google and graphics chipmaker nVidia to create a 3-D, realistic-looking in-car navigation map system and display.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/5/2009 8:53:26 AM ET 2009-05-05T12:53:26

Imagine a future where you are traveling in an unfamiliar city and have a tire failure. It is late Saturday afternoon and tire shops will be closing for the weekend soon. You need to find one quickly that has the right replacement tire or you will have to finish your trip driving on the spare.

In this scenario, the driver need only press a button to request assistance locating the nearest tire shop that is still open. An operator finds the shops by matching local data with the car’s GPS location. With a candidate tire shop conferenced on the line by the operator, the driver provides the tire size and the shop confirms they have it in stock and ready to be installed.

But the driver doesn’t know where the shop is located. Before the tire shop employee can attempt to give directions, the online operator sends the shop’s address to the car’s on-board navigation system, which then automatically routes the driver to the shop. This is the future of merged telematics services, such as General Motors’ OnStar, and on-board navigation systems — now best known for the nagging instruction “Please make a legal U-turn,” after the driver has disregarded some ill-considered route suggested by the computer.

The tire incident describes my own recent experience with a Chevrolet Silverado hybrid test vehicle equipped with navigation and OnStar. Telematic and navigation technology is evolving so quickly that science fiction is becoming reality.

Among the services available now: If, for example, a driver is at home, planning a trip out of town, he or she can enter destinations along the way into MapQuest using a computer’s Web browser. Directions are then sent to their car’s on-board navigation system, rather than going through the usually-tedious and time-consuming process of using the nav system’s destination entry interface.

“One of the areas of dissatisfaction for customers of screen-based navigation is the destination entry part of it,” said Tony DiSalle, OnStar’s vice president of sales and marketing. “With OnStar Destination Download, you can download a destination on the fly. All it takes is one button press to go.”

Image: OnStar in-car screen
A navigation screen is shown after an OnStar operator has sent a destination download. All the driver needs to do to be directed to the destination is press the screen's "go" button.
“The whole process of finding destinations on installed navs is a pain,” agreed Phil Magney, vice president of automotive research for iSuppli Corp.

Additionally, OnStar sends its customers destinations for routing through their cars’ turn-by-turn navigation systems. The OnStar information uses simple text displays rather than the familiar graphical navigation map screens.

“To me that is one of the most relevant applications of telematics, beyond safety and security,” said Magney. These simplified and streamlined methods of getting a destination into the nav system, even while driving, provide drivers with a tangible benefit that can make monthly subscription fees to such services worth the cost, he said.

Traffic density in real time
Modern navigation also can help the driver avoid traffic back-ups, storm fronts and overpriced gasoline. The navigation systems in many new cars, such as the 2009 Lincoln MKS can display traffic density on highways in real time based on data collected by traffic services, has real-time weather radar that looks just like Jim Cantore’s Weather Channel map and provides the location of nearby gas stations with fuel prices.

Lincoln’s system gets its information from the car’s Sirius XM satellite radio link, which is another data channel to cars in addition to subscription-based services using cellular technology, such as OnStar, said Magney.

“In the future, there will be a wireless ‘pipe’ to every car,” he said. Drivers’ own cell phones may well provide that connection, as they do already in Ford cars equipped with Microsoft’s Sync technology, which connects portable devices such as Bluetooth-enabled phones to cars’ electronic systems. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

An advantage of embedded subscription-based systems over services using drivers’ own phones has been their ability to do things such as automatically report a crash to 911 operators, or to relay vehicle maintenance status information to a dealer for possible service, although the latest edition of Sync does those things, too.

Embedded OnStar hardware has been designed to survive crashes, and the on-board cellular transmitter is more powerful than that of a portable phone, said DiSalle.

More cars will have embedded technology
But Ford engineers say they have built their components to be durable too, and that the customer’s phone is usually in their pocket, where it benefits from all of the same crash protection devices that shield the driver from injury. Also, the extra transmitting power of a built-in cellular connection is less important now that wireless phone networks have gone digital, according to Magney.

“Power requirements for digital are a lot lower than they were for analog,” he said. An embedded phone does benefit from a superior antenna design, which could add range, he added.

This doesn’t mean that there will be a VHS vs. Beta standards war between embedded systems and those that use Bluetooth to connect to the driver’s phone, said Magney.

Indeed, iSuppli forecasts that by 2013, more than half of all new cars will include embedded cellular hardware for subscription-based telematics services, and two-thirds of new cars will have a Bluetooth connection.

Today, new models from General Motors that include OnStar also offer a Bluetooth connection. Car makers want to have wireless access to their products to permit them to push updates out to the vehicles long after they’re sold, much in the way Apple and Microsoft update the software on their customers’ computers.

“Software is never finished,” said Magney. A vehicle could be programmed for better fuel economy, or smoother response, especially in the case of hybrid vehicles with their complex powertrain management software.

Real-time parking guidance
The potential for future applications combining telematics and on-board navigation hardware is similarly strong. Real-time parking information that lets the nav system direct the driver to an available parking spot is a much-sought technology, but one that has been announced and retracted by some electronics manufacturers. They say the problem is difficulty getting accurate parking space occupancy information from parking garage operators, but this will be overcome eventually.

Volkswagen’s California Electronic Research Lab, along with General Motors and other companies, is pursuing ways to let cars communicate relevant information directly to one another. A scenario where a car has crashed on a slippery road and comes to a rest in the lane, around a blind curve, is an example. In this instance, the crashed car could broadcast a local alert, warning any nearby cars of its presence to avoid a subsequent collision.

“What is really exciting are the applications we are developing to take advantage of this always-on connectivity to the outside world,” said Charles Lee, a research engineer at the lab. Car-to-car communications could be used to manage traffic signals and speed traffic flow, saving fuel and time, he added.

The company has also collaborated with Google and nVidia to develop prototype navigation systems that collect map data from Google Earth, with 3-D photorealistic images in place of the cartoonish maps of today’s systems. Another benefit of getting map data from the Internet over a wireless link is that it is always up-to-date, in contrast to disc-based, on-board nav systems, which are only as recent as the latest disc update, said Magney.

Smartphones like Apple’s iPhone could also eventually be integrated into cars’ systems, so that rather than simply providing a cellular link via a Bluetooth connection, they could be plugged into the car to provide a variety of services. Chrysler’s Peapod electric car prototype showed the iPhone being used in such a role, so that it even served as the car’s key for startup.

Before long, the notion of using your phone to start your car could be no less ridiculous than the once-unthinkable idea of using your phone to shoot and display photographs.  

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