Five years ago, being able to receive email in your car sounded exciting. Now, in the era of text messaging and the handheld Blackberry, the idea of paying a healthy fee every month to hear the car radio recite your latest spam messages sounds out-of-date, like the concept of the car phone.

You may remember that 10 to 15 years ago, car phones were such status symbols that some folks would attach fake antennas to their cars just so they could pretend they had one.

“Telematics,” the technology that links vehicles wirelessly to the Internet and web-related services, was expected to fill the void as the novelty and prestige of the car phone disappeared, creating a giant new industry and revenue stream for auto makers and suppliers.

Email access and premium services such as the ability to order theater tickets from your car were a couple of the “killer apps” (must-have applications) that would drive its popularity.

Consumers gravitated to portable wireless technologies instead, but telematics suppliers have managed to avoid the fate of many Internet-based companies by refocusing on practical consumer applications and commercial services.

In September, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and IBM Corp. announced a hands-free and natural-sounding in-vehicle speech-recognition system that will be standard equipment on the '05 Acura RL sedan, MDX cross/utility vehicle and Honda Odyssey minivan.

The technology will eliminate one of the biggest drawbacks of current navigation systems: the annoying and time-consuming task of programming destinations.

IBM software makes it possible for drivers to speak all street addresses represented in the U.S. navigation system database and receive turn-by-turn voice guidance to their destination, a feature navigation system users are bound to fall in love with immediately.

The Acura RL system also features the first navigation system in the U.S. that integrates real-time traffic data into the display.

Individually, each service isn't that impressive, but when bundled with the convenience afforded by a working voice-recognition system, it becomes a compelling new feature.

“While some are in constant search for something called “the killer app,” we've recognized since the mid '90s that telematics actually represents an expanding cluster of business opportunities that we call an ‘ecosystem.’ That ecosystem touches not only the world's leading automobile manufacturers but also many of the business segments most closely associated with them,” says an IBM source.

IBM also is targeting no-nonsense applications in the commercial arena. It is providing technology to International Truck and Engine Corp. that allows truck fleet managers to track vehicle location, monitor performance, diagnose maintenance issues and ensure driver and vehicle security with wireless telemetry.

International calls telematics an electronic “umbilical cord” that moves wireless data from each vehicle into the office or workstation of fleet and maintenance managers.

One of the most straightforward benefits of the technology is that it can simplify complicated fleet administrative and accounting chores, such as calculating taxes on the fuel burned in individual states by interstate trucks, IBM says.

General Motors Corp.'s OnStar unit, the best-known telematics supplier, is making gains touting basic safety and security features such as the ability to automatically notify emergency rescue workers after an airbag deploys.

GM recently announced it would double, to 3 million, the number of vehicles equipped with OnStar for the '06 model year. That's far below the 4 million subscribers GM predicted four years ago that it would have by 2003, but OnStar claims retention rates now are 60% and growing. By almost any measure, that's progress.
with Alisa Priddle