Telematics gets mainstream boost (finally)

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With the recent announcement of a new joint venture between automotive services giant RAC and  telecoms specialist Quindell, the growing field of telematics is about to receive an unprecedented boost of publicity in the public’s eyes.

The collaboration, named as Connected Car Solutions, is the largest telematics deal ever signed, and will see telematics systems installed in millions of vehicles in the UK, Europe and Canada. The aim is simple: use telematics devices (provided by Quindell-owned Ingenie) to provide driver monitoring, with the goal of reducing insurance premiums. This is especially good news for new drivers in the UK- Ingenie claim that the starting policy for young drivers can be reduced from £3100 down to £1700 if the driver agrees to fit a telematics unit in their car. Additionally, this will be the first time that Ingenie telematics units have been issued to drivers over 25- insurance cost-saving units are normally issued to young drivers. This is good news for mature UK drivers such as me, who have seen insurance prices rise far beyond reasonable expectations over the last few years.

So, telematics is about to make a name for itself with European and Canadian drivers looking to save money on insurance.

That’s great. But surely there is more to this technology than merely saving money? What about the increasing ubiquity of mobile computing platforms? Most of us have a computer in our pocket right now, in the form of a smartphone. Is it really necessary to purchase a subscription to enjoy the fruits of this growing technology? And what if you live in an area not covered by the subscription?

There are telematics options for different needs throughout the world. Here is a selection of those options.

Ingenie

It would be unfair to open with RAC/Quindell/Ingenie without giving a brief overview of the Ingenie platform, so for the benefit of those looking to invest in this service, here is an outline.

Ingenie’s simple slogan states that you can “drive well, pay less”. As far as soundbites go, it is pretty direct and to the point.

The service begins with the installation of a black box in the customer’s vehicle. Once installed, the unit samples the motion of the car at regular intervals. It measures both linear and angular acceleration by use of accelerometers and small gyroscopes enabling feedback for harsh acceleration/breaking, and g-forces experienced in cornering.

Ingenie, in app form…

A score out of 100 is awarded every 10 days, which will eventually be used to determine the driver’s insurance premium. A higher score means that the driver is deemed a safer driver. A low score means that performing burnouts in your Nissan GTR may not be the most economical choice (not least for your poor, smoldering tires).

In addition, driver feedback is sent to the customer in the form of a text message to a smartphone. Expect good feedback and cheaper insurance if your driving philosophy exists within the realms of a Sunday drive to church. Expect negative feedback if your mentality is “drive it like you stole it”.

Of course, in this situation there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” feedback-the feedback is a tool to help the customer to drive safely and save cash, so it is in the customer’s best interest to take the feedback on board.

Of course, not only can this feedback work towards saving cash on insurance, but can save money on brake pads, tires and fuel consumption too. Additional benefits include tracking the location of the car, in event of theft, and when the RAC deal becomes a reality, the tracking system will assist with roadside breakdown recovery.

It seems that everyone is a winner in this case. Rollout to RAC customers is expected to begin in July 2014, although the baseline Ingenie services are available right now.

Tesla

Of course, for a car company owned by a guy who made his first millions writing software, it makes sense that Tesla should come equipped with telematics options as standard.

Naturally, the main requirement of this service is to actually own a Tesla vehicle in the first place, but assuming that you already do, there are several cool features available to drivers of the only cool electric car on the planet.

Much to the annoyance of Jeremy Clarkson and the Top Gear team, Tesla vehicles give a pretty detailed overview of vehicle telemetry in combination with GPS tracking and diagnostic features. This means that not only can your driving behavior be monitored, but your Tesla dealer can monitor certain faults with your car without you needing to drive to the nearest Tesla garage. Great news for UK Tesla owners, as there is currently just one, solitary service centre in England, although more are planned.

tesla-modle-s-app

Tesla also has an app.

Tesla has also released a smartphone app for the Model S vehicle, enabling accessibility to certain features at any time.

These features include the ability to lock/unlock the car, open and close the panoramic roof, flash lights/honk horn (good for locating in busy car parks), GPS map location, charge cycle monitoring, and of particular use to drivers in colder climates – the ability to activate the heating system before you start your 5am drive at -20⁰C.

One point of interest worth mentioning, particularly to the more libertarian-minded American consumer, is that Tesla has a clause in its terms of service regarding dissemination of telematics data. They state that “Tesla does not disclose the data recorded in your vehicle to any third party except when…Officially requested by the police or other authorities” or “Ordered by a court of law”.

Some may see this as an infringement of personal liberties. However, Tesla has provided the ability to opt out of this scheme, which is a good thing in a time where the fear of NSA spooks monitoring every digital transmission is becoming increasingly widespread.

Automatic

This next product offers similar data to the Ingenie system, but does not require a subscription to an insurance company to access it. In September 2013, Automatic labs released the Automatic Link OBD2 dongle, allowing similar access to data, in a straight-out-of-the-box, plug and play unit.

For a one off cost of $99.95, US-based drivers can access a variety of data which includes the standard linear and angular motion measurements, and additional fault codes as churned out via the driver’s OBD2 port. As with the Tesla and Ingenie systems, geographic location can also be tracked via GPS.

Installation is simple enough- you find your OBD2 port, plug the dongle in, and sync the unit via Bluetooth with your iPhone. Sadly, this product is only available to Apple iPhone owners at present, and is only available to the US market, although that is set to change in the future.

One particularly interesting service offered with the Automatic system is the Crash Alert system.

Crash Alert utilizes the inbuilt accelerometer to detect sudden decelerations associated with a severe crash. In the event that the driver has not noticed the fact that they are upside down in someone’s front garden, the smartphone plays a loud tone, just as a reminder.

A 30 second countdown begins, and if the driver has not responded to the prompt from the smartphone within that time limit, then the location of the crash is forwarded to the Automatic call centre. An agent at the call centre then calls the driver, and confirms that they require assistance from emergency services. The call centre agent can then stay on the line until help arrives, and will also notify loved ones of the crash, and inform them that help is on the way.

Critics of the system have pointed out that it is a very expensive way to communicate with a car’s OBD2 port, and in terms of features, it may not have enough to keep a true petrolhead satisfied.

However, if you are more concerned with saving fuel money (and your life) than knowing the boost pressure of your illegally turboed Honda Civic, then there are few better systems readily available.

Omnitracs

No overview on telematics solutions would be complete without a mention of fleet management. Although telematics for the general public is on the rise, thanks to the growing number of smartphones and other embedded systems, vehicle fleet and logistics companies have been using telematics systems to track and trace their assets for over a decade.

One such company offering fleet telematics solutions is Omnitracs.

The MCP-200 does everything but drive your truck- so keep your hands on the wheel. Credit: Omnitrac

The MCP-200 does everything but drive your truck- so keep your hands on the wheel.

Omnitracs offer a range of packages tailored to businesses of all sizes. Taking their MCP200 platform as an example, Omnitracs claim that this system will transform each vehicle asset into a “mobile operations centre”, and promise to save the customer a not insignificant amount of money.

As with most of the systems mentioned, the MCP200 platform starts off with a dongle, designed to integrate with the truck’s diagnostic port. Naturally, this provides real time access to the common fault codes, for rapid diagnosis in the event of a fault. Also, like the other systems the MCP200 provides motion data and allows feedback for driver behavior.

It is the other elements of connectivity which differ this system however. Connected wirelessly to the dongle is a small, handheld computer terminal through which the other applications are available. The terminal itself can provide its own Wi-Fi hotspot, thus allowing further integration with the driver’s Android-based device for an extra level of mobility.

These other systems accessible via the terminal include web-browsing, route planning, document scanning, text-to-speech messaging, driver workflow monitoring and vehicle inspection reports. Safety and security of assets seems to be a big part of the Omnitracs arsenal, with various applications offered to track unauthorized access to cargo (via door sensors), and access to safety audits via the terminal.

At the backend, all of this can be integrated with the Omnitracs analytics system which aids in visualization of the masses of acquired data.

The end result is a smooth workflow, tracked fleet assets and constant feedback from drivers to customers allowing timely deliveries and increased ROI. As a former fleet driver myself, I can confirm that the reduction of paper via the electronic vehicle reports and document scanning would make a welcome change from the cluttered cab of a decade ago.

Omnitracs services are offered in Europe, USA, Mexico, Middle East and Africa, making it one of the most universally accessible services listed here.

iOnRoad

iOnRoad turns your smartphone into an augmented reality videogame. Credit: IOnRoad

iOnRoad turns your smartphone into a sweet augmented reality videogame.

The iOnRoad smartphone app differs significantly from all other solutions listed in this article, as it does not integrate with the vehicle telemetry functions. Instead, the app utilizes the readily available smartphone sensors to provide information to drivers and insurance companies, in the event of an accident.

The app functions as a type of heads up display which is mounted via suction cup onto the windscreen. Using computer vision technology to produce a vision based radar effect, the camera scans the road ahead detecting threats to safety and displays the information as a variety of metrics on the phone screen.

Such metrics include distance to vehicles in front of the car, risk of accident, speed and navigation functions. In addition a heads up lane sensor is displayed which alerts the driver when he or she drifts out of lane-particularly useful for long, tiring journeys. Add to that a black box function which records video evidence for insurance claims, and you have a pretty comprehensive and low-cost driving assistant application. And by “low-cost”, how does £3.99 sound?  iOnRoad is available for both iOS and Android devices.

C4 OBD Dongle

There are literally hundreds of different telematics solutions currently available to both commercial and private vehicle owners. Purchasing a system which makes the right trade off in terms of cost, functionality and usability can be pretty daunting.

Plug n' play, as it should be.

Plug n’ play, as it should be.

But there is one other option, which we have saved until last-an option that allows the user to customize their telematics solutions to their own needs. It is very much the age of the “maker” at the moment and that homebrew maker spirit has permeated the world of telematics, as one might expect.

All you need is the initial hardware, a computer and a little bit of programming knowledge. Enter the C4 OBD dongle…

The C4 boasts of the usual features listed (Bluetooth, accelerometers, gyros, GPS etc), but what sets this unit apart is the operating system and development kit.

The unit itself runs on the open Morpheus 3 OS, and can be developed further by use of the Morpheus SDK. The SDK is based on the Eclipse IDE and contains over 3000+ APIs in Java, which allow new applications to be tailored far beyond what is available in an off-the-shelf product. If a driver finds their driving score a little too generic, then the algorithms can be modified to suit. Standard navigation functions not picking up speed camera data? No problem, the navigation app can be hacked and modified to user requirements. Sensor and data fusion are the keys to unlocking the potential of this system, and the applications are limited only by the ingenuity of the programmer.

A well connected future…

It is near on impossible to cover every single element of the growing telematics industry in such a short space. However, the systems examined here cover a broad range of solutions from different approaches that are currently available.

This car drives itself- but who can we sue when it steers us into a lake? Or a crowded orphanage? Credit: Google

This car drives itself- but who can we sue when it steers us into a lake, or a crowded orphanage?

With the ever growing ubiquity of embedded systems, and the trend towards user customized hardware and software, one thing is certain – we are going to see a lot more choice in terms of telematics solutions in the near future…

…and what of the not-so-near future?

All of these systems examined have relied on GPS data for navigation purposes. GPS is no longer the new kid on the block. The European Galileo satellite navigation network is scheduled to come online in 2014, with the full constellation being operational by 2019. This system will offer unrivalled accuracy in terms of pinpointing location, and additionally will allow for services at higher extremes of latitude.

The Russian GLONASS navigation network achieved full coverage of Russia in 2010, and given the tendency for Russian drivers to carry dash cams in their vehicles it seems only a matter of time before someone joins up the dots and cracks that market wide open.

And finally, we have the Google self-driving cars- the ultimate fusion of telematics, big data, satellite navigation and computer vision. The driverless future offers a mode of transport that doesn’t make mistakes, doesn’t have accidents, knows where the traffic is and won’t get you a speeding ticket.

In fact, if all of the decision making processes are taken out of the drivers hands, it makes one wonder if we would even need insurance at all. Maybe Google will pay for that as well. Here’s hoping.

Photos courtesy of Ingenie, Tesla, Omnitrac, IOnRoad, Mobile-devices and Google.

 

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Phillip Keane

Phillip is an aerospace engineer and a writer, with an unhealthy obsession with human and robotic spaceflight.