Communication Issue I Transportation Volume IX

Automotive Telematics: A Technological Lifesaver

About the Author: Gerardo Garcia

In the fall of 2007, Gerardo Garcia was an undergraduate junior at the University of Southern California and was pursuing a B.S. degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering.

Telematics, in its general sense, refers to the science of sending, receiving, and storing information via telecommunication devices. It is most notably known for its use in automotive vehicles through the application of global positioning systems. The variety of ways in which this technology may be used has only begun to make its presence known: vehicle and trailer tracking, satellite navigation, mobile data, emergency warning systems for vehicles, and more. Automotive telematics is an excellent example of a technology designed with human needs and limitations in mind. It is increasingly transforming the dreams of the past into a reality through the design of today’s automobiles. Automotive telematics is steadily becoming a part of the new age of features and applications vehicles have to offer.


Jan Roger Johannesen/SXC
Figure​ 1: Handheld GPS Unit.

The popular 1980’s television show Knight Rider was known for the artificially intelligent smart-car known as K.I.T.T. This technologically advanced vehicle foreshadowed the high level of sophistication that has become characteristic of modern automobiles. K.I.T.T. had the unique ability to interact with its driver, accepting voice commands in order to perform a desired function [1]. Today, such a level of artificial intelligence in vehicles is made possible through the inclusion of a wireless communication network (see Fig. 1). This network is the basis of the technology known as telematics [2].

Automotive Telematics: A Brief Description

Just as K.I.T.T.’s top priority was to protect human life, telematics applications are designed to fulfill the same purpose for today’s drivers. Automotive telematics is an emerging technology that takes drivers’ needs and limitations into consideration by providing applications such as hazard warning and global positioning systems in order to contribute to the safety, security, and satisfaction of humans in their driving experience.

What Exactly is Automotive Telematics?

Automotive telematics refers to any kind of service providing drivers with information or communication within the vehicle via a wireless communication link. Examples of telematics services for cars include driving directions, real-time traffic information, and the capability to send voice-activated emails [2]. Technology is increasingly becoming a defining characteristic of modern automobiles, which are already considered to be a “network of embedded computers” on wheels [4]. Modern cars currently consist of 20-80 microprocessors that control countless functions within the vehicle, such as running the engine, controlling the brake system, and deploying the air-bags in a serious traffic accident [4]. Such highly engineered systems are designed to achieve personal safety and security while also accounting for the driver’s needs to simplify and enhance the driving experience.

How Does This Technology Help Drivers?

Human Factors and Telematics

With increasingly problematic traffic conditions, telematics applications have proven to be beneficial to users by incorporating a “human factors” approach in their design. This approach accounts for information about human behavior, abilities, limitations, and other useful data in order to make the system valuable to drivers [5]. The unreliability of human performance is one of the major factors taken into account in designing telematics systems that assist humans in various types of driving conditions [6].

Consideration of Human Limitations

In order to satisfy drivers’ needs, telematics applications strive to eliminate the potential threats induced by physiological, psychological, and sociological limitations. Physiological limitations may include impaired vision in night traffic, poor hearing, bad peripheral vision, and delayed reactions. Psychological limitations, meanwhile, are products of a driver’s inability to sometimes recognize his or her own poor behavior on the road. Reckless driving habits, including unnecessary passing maneuvers, disregard for speed limits, and failure to yield to pedestrians, have all contributed to the increased risks associated with operating automobiles. But in addition to physiological and psychological limitations, drivers may also experience sociological limitations. Cars produce an isolated environment, which weakens normal human interaction and communication. This detachment may subconsciously affect drivers, causing them to disregard their own responsibilities as well as the traffic laws and regulations of the road [6].

Telematics Applications: Hazard Warning

Basic Idea

In an effort to increase automotive safety, a wireless vehicle-to-vehicle warning system has been proposed to notify drivers of impending hazardous situations along the roadway. The information would reach the driver quickly and accurately via these telecommunication devices, allowing the driver to make safe, careful decisions in response to the warning. Various automotive safety systems have already been implemented to assist the driver in times of danger, such as the General Motors interactive application “OnStar.” Other devices include air-bag systems that limit the drastic effects of traffic accidents. Anti-lock brake systems have also become prominent in helping drivers maintain control during perilous situations by allowing quick and efficient deceleration in an emergency. The proposed warning system is a response to the fact that the majority of automobile collisions occur as a result of drivers recognizing dangerous conditions too late. This is most likely due to limitations in road visibility, including bad weather and winding roads, and to the driver’s other distractions. The wireless vehicle-to-vehicle warning system has been designed to eliminate such limitations by alerting the driver of critical incidents one to two kilometers ahead of the vehicle, allowing time for an appropriate response [7].

System Components

The accuracy and overall performance of such a vital warning system is only as good as the components that go into producing it (see Fig. 2). The warning system’s efficiency is determined by a high-frequency transceiver and a human-machine interface. Two other interrelated parts – the digital signal processing unit and the wireless communication processor – characterize the digital aspect of the system. Digital signal processing is based on a “multi-chip-module,”​ designed to generate alert messages and evaluate those received from other vehicles [7]. The wireless communication processor works in conjunction with the digital signal-processing unit to handle different tasks involved in the functioning of the warning system.

Jan Roger Johannesen/SXC
Figure​ 2. Internal Components Of A GPS Unit.

Such tasks include establishing access to the communication channel – in order for information to be shared -as well as the actual reception and transmission of the data itself. The data is communicated by a high-frequency transceiver responsible for allowing the vehicle to transmit and receive information. This communication range depends highly on vehicle location and road conditions. Operating in a wide range of frequencies, the transceiver can communicate data up to four kilometers on rural roads. On highways, with numerous cars between the transmitting and receiving vehicles, the communication range is limited to about 250 meters. The final aspect of the system, the human-machine interface, is responsible for transferring the received information to the driver. Although it slightly varies among car manufacturers, the interface generally consists of a display unit with auditory and visual components to notify the driver of the warning and the distance remaining to the location of the hazardous incident [7].


The effects of the wireless vehicle-to-vehicle warning system have been tested in various traffic simulations by comparing those automobiles equipped with the system to those lacking it. The results demonstrate that the risk of strong decelerations decreases by more than 50% as the number of cars equipped with the system increases [7]. The system thus accomplishes its goals of alleviating traffic conditions and significantly improving safety.

Telematics Applications: Global Positioning System (GPS)

GPS is a satellite-based radio navigation system that provides an effective means for a driver to determine the vehicle’s position and velocity at any given time, anywhere around the world. Its purpose is to provide drivers with faster and less hazardous routes to their desired destination while at the same time significantly alleviating traffic congestion [8].

How It Works

Designed and financed by the U.S. Department of Defense for military applications, the GPS system became available for civilian use in the 1980’s and consists of two main parts: the space segment, characterized by satellites transmitting data, and the user segment, represented by receivers of the satellite information. The space network on which the system is based consists of 24 solar-powered satellites in orbit that circle the earth twice a day while transmitting useful information to the built-in receivers in automobiles [8]. These satellites are approximately 12,000 miles above the earth’s surface and are traveling at speeds of about 7,000 miles per hour.
Taking this signal information, the receivers use the method of triangulation, a technique to determine the distance between two points, in order to calculate the vehicle’s precise location on earth. To determine the vehicle’s position, the receivers measure the time at a signal’s transmission and again at its reception. By utilizing this time difference, the distance between the vehicle and the satellite is determined and then compared with similar distance measurements from various other satellites in order to calculate and display the vehicle’s exact position.
After determining position, the GPS system is then able to calculate other beneficial information via its satellite communication including vehicle speed, total trip distance, and the distance remaining to the destination [9]. The GPS system excels in providing the driver a more enjoyable and worthwhile driving experience by increasing vehicle safety and making trips more time efficient.

Conclusion: Drawbacks and the Future of Automotive Telematics

Despite the variety of ways in which telematics applications have proven to be beneficial to humans, the main challenge to the future of these services is their high cost. The average cost of this technology for users is about $1,000. Therefore, it has proven difficult for companies to entice customers to pay for premium services utilizing telematics. However, advocates of the automotive telematics industry remain hopeful and believe that its popularity will grow in the near future. This idea results from the “market pull” of automotive telematics, meaning many of its applications have wide appeal to consumers and are in high demand [10]. These applications include hands-free mobile phones, safety and security services, entertainment products, and vehicle tracking.
In addition to this demand, the increasing level of sophistication inherent in modern automobiles requires telematics to perform a wide range of functions. For example, the wireless two-way communication made possible by telematics will be needed for software upgrades and remote diagnostics [10]. The total revenues for the automotive telematics industry is expected to be $38.8 billion in 2011, according to a study by ABI Research [11].
The most important aspect of automotive telematics is its ability to provide safety, security, and satisfaction by taking drivers’ needs and limitations and creating applications that enhance one’s driving experience. Its benefits cannot be overlooked, and the presence of rapidly improving technology signifies that a promising future of automotive telematics is inevitable.


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