Telematics on Track

The players
Qualcomm is the leading player in the telematics market, with @Road, Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), PeopleNet, and a host of smaller players following its lead. Unsurprisingly, the largest carriers in the U.S., such as Cingular Wireless , Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), and Verizon Wireless , are also among the largest telematics players. Verizon, in particular, has an ongoing relationship with OnStar, which provides real-time tracking and assistance for select General Motors vehicle owners.

Carriers are a vital part in the telematics equation, since they can provide tracking information and transmit other data over high-speed 3G cellular networks to and from the automobile.

The field for applications, mapping, and other software used in the vehicles, however, is wide open. Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) has been steadily developing a version of its Windows operating system for cars, while some systems have also been developed using Linux. Recently, search giant Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) has started to get into the market, using the mapping and localized data search capabilities it has developed over the last few years.

"Mapping and navigating are now highly accurate," comments Qualcomm's Doyle. "QWBS is building out its best-in-class platform which will debut in the fall. Extensive research and development have led to true turn-by-turn directions and, on the server side, maps and route planning."

On the smart bus
Many business applications are not simply about making sure that truck drivers deliver their load to the right place at the right time any more. Companies are now using telematics to tell them more about the health of the vehicles and compile an overall picture of the efficiency of a fleet.

In December 2005, Orbital Sciences Corp. won a $12 million dollar contract to provide Foothill Transit of West Covina, Calif., with a smart bus system (SBS) for its 300-strong fleet of vehicles.

As well as the obligatory GPS satellite tracking system, Orbital will provide onboard vehicle diagnostic tools, an audio/visual surveillance system on each bus, and a WiFi network for the passengers using the service. All of this can be monitored via central software at Foothill’s headquarters.

”The system will improve operational efficiency and passenger safety,” says Foothill spokeswoman Felicia Friesema.

The firm intends to have a pilot scheme up and running in 10 of its buses by this summer and expects to complete the rollout of the system across its fleets by the end of 2007.

Cost is king
For small businesses looking to implement fleet management systems, the ongoing cost of the service remains a key concern, according to David Starr, VP of customer solutions at SatViz, a Colorado-based telematics reseller and consultancy.

One of the key trends in the business at the moment, he says, is the advent of GPRS cellular data services, replacing the old cellular data services in the U.S. A GPRS transmitter can be installed on a truck, or a user can get a smartphone/PDA-based system that combines GPRS data services with GPS tracking. Cingular is the leading provider of such systems.

Keeping a lid on the cost of the GPRS data service for each unit is important, says Starr. "If you're paying more than a dollar a day, you're paying too much."

Future tracking
The advent of new wireless connectivity systems such as Qualcomm's MediaFLO and WiMax are increasing the options for telematics systems. Mobile WiMax systems could be a new way to connect automobiles to the outside world and allow speedier data connectivity. At the moment, however, systems like MediaFLO and mobile WiMax are a couple of years away from reaching the market.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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