Telematics makes your car safer, keeps you from getting lost, summons roadside assistance at the press of a button, routes you around accidents, auto-dials 911 if you’re in the accident, and starts your EV charging at 2 a.m. when rates are cheapest. Those are a few of the features that make up vehicle telematics. But what is telematics? For most users, telematics means navigation, communications, safety, security, and increasingly infotainment.
Basically, telematics is a crash-resistant black box that receives wireless information, information more advanced than broadcast radio, and does something useful with it. Telematics doesn’t have to include two-way communication, but most of the good stuff involves going both ways. Usually there’s an embedded cellular modem as with GM’s OnStar. Some of the telematics work can be handled by your connected smartphone, as happens with Ford Sync. Here’s our backgrounder on vehicular telematics.
OnStar as the prototype for telematics
The best way to explain telematics is to describe OnStar, the original passenger car telematics systems, first announced by General Motors in 1995. The automaker mounts a cellular data modem, GPS, a backup battery, and connections to sensors. The box goes in the back of the car, shielded from most crashes. It connects to a roof-mounted antenna that has more range than your mobile phone has.
The best-known feature is automatic crash notification (ACN). When a vehicle sensor reports a significant accident, OnStar sends that information to an OnStar call center, which then makes a voice call reporting the accident and location to one of the nation’s PSAPs, or public-safety answering points, essentially a 911 service. At the same time, OnStar opens a voice link to the car to get more information from the occupants and necessary and reassure frightened or confused occupants until help arrives.
OnStar is used most often for navigation, sending a destination to the car from a smartphone or web browser, or having it looked up and sent to the car by the call center. Remote door unlock is also common, for times when you lock your keys inside. Over time, OnStar and other services are adding low-overhead, high-perceived-value features such as monthly vehicle diagnostics reports. OnStar also rolls in data services such as weather, sports scores, stocks, movie times, and traffic information.
You pay for the service, typically $20 a month or $200 a year, or $30/$300 for concierge level telematics where you can ask a call center staffer (“advisor”) to do things such as look up an address and send that to your navigation system. Over time, OnStar is moving more functions to virtual advisors (voice recognition systems) and to smartphone apps. Now the owner can remotely unlock the car in a couple seconds, where a call to an advisor might take a couple minutes.
Telematics: the core services
Most every car with telematics has a core of common features. These are the ones you’ll either use a lot or