The technology behind telematics

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Telematics might sound like its own, singular system; especially when it’s bundled up in a smartphone app or in a black box hidden somewhere in you car or van, but in reality it’s a collection of technologies covering a wide range of fields, including: telecommunications, road safety, electrical engineering, computer science and data storage. All of these help contribute to the overall goal of telematics, which is to give us more information about what our cars are doing.

As a technology, it’s been around in one form or another for several decades already, most famously used for things like satellite navigation and for recovering stolen vehicles. There were very simplistic applications of just one aspect of a modern telematics system, so they aren’t exactly comparable, but they do show that basic forms of tracking have been around for a long time.

However, whether they’re bespoke little black boxes, or a smartphone application, telematics uses relatively similar technology to allow insurers, fleet managers and individuals to keep a better eye on how their car is performing, behaving and how the driver themselves are handling things. This might surprise some people as a smartphone app can often look and behave very differently from a telematics package that’s designed to be managed online through fleet manager software.

Of course they’re not all entirely the same, but for the most part, there’s a standardised set of hardware sensors that can be utilised to figure out all the aspects of a cars movement and performance. So what we’re going to look at here, are some of the sensors and tools that a modern telematics system uses, in order to provide all of the many benefits that they can offer.

Location

Much like specific satellite navigation devices, telematics devices and smartphones utilise GPS technology to figure out just where you are in the world. I won’t go into the mechanism of its operation too much here, as we covered GPS technology in quite a detailed break down lately. However, it isn’t always used on its own.

tracking

Some vehicle tracking systems also come complete with a GSM GPRS modem, which broadcasts the information to a centralised location. Unlike a traditional satellite navigation system, or basic mobile phone map tool, which acts as a receiver for GPS location data from satellites operating in middle-earth-orbit, telematics devices also have to act as senders of information, since they need to communicate with an insurance company or fleet manager. The location data is received from the satellites, then turned into readable information by management reporting tools and broadcast to the receiver at the other end – whatever that happens to be. It also often communicates with some form of graphical processor, to draw your location on a display – though that may not be the case with a stealthed black box telematics device.

While GPS is the primary satellite navigation network used to quantify a user’s location, there are some mobile devices which also make use of the Russian GLONASS satellites, which can mean greater accuracy and a faster response time to initial requests for location data. In the future, these may be replaced by the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service, or EGNOS, which could potentially provide location data as accurate as the nearest metre and a half – though that’s hardly necessary for most vehicle tracking purposes.

Acceleration and Braking

Acceleration and braking and whether either was too heavy to be safe, is all measured by an onboard accelerometer. All mobile phones come equipped with them – it’s why your phone is able to rotate the picture as you turn the phone, or switch from landscape to portrait mode when taking a photograph – and telematics devices do too, as they are able to do a lot more than just sense orientation. Accelerometers, if you didn’t guess from their name, are able to measure acceleration.

An accelerometer achieves this, by operating similar to a damped spring. When acceleration or braking occurs, the mass on the conceptual ‘spring’ is accelerated by it. The displacement is measured, giving a figure of acceleration. In electrical terms, this figure is translated into an electrical signal which is then sent to – in this case – a micro-controller within the telematics device, or smartphone. In those sorts of modern devices however, an accelerometer is incredibly simple. Often, it is simple a cantilever with a mass on its end. How much that mass moves within the gas inside the device, is the acceleration figure.

Fortunately, this simplification of the technology has allowed for accelerometers to be included in commercial devices like smartphones and telematics black boxes, as in the past, they were just too expensive for the relatively basic function as they are used today.

Fuel Tracking

While there are some telematics devices that plug right into your vehicle’s diagnostics ports can keep track of lots of information about it, including the potential for part failures and the fuel economy, most don’t and that certainly isn’t something that smartphones can do. What those other (and the majority of) telematics devices do, is factor in all the things that have a negative effect on fuel economy and encourage you to change them.fuelguarge

For example, speeding and sharp acceleration are detrimental to the vehicle’s fuel efficiency, so they may prompt you to change that. At the very least, it will contribute to lowering the driving score that some insurers give you. Accelerating more steadily, switching to higher gears sooner and not going quite so fast can have a large impact on your fuel usage, so all telematics devices will encourage users to practice those sorts of habits. On top of that it reduces vehicle wear too, so it’s a double whammy of improvements.

Idling can also considered by a lot of devices. This is especially applicable for lorries or enterprise vehicles that may stay switched on during loading or unloading, during which time they are wasting fuel. Encouraging drivers to switch of their vehicle while locomotion isn’t required can have another big impact on fuel economy, as you can  have the most fuel efficient engine in the world, but your miles per gallon is absolute zero if you are sitting stock still. Unless it’s paintfully cold and the driver needs the heaters on, cutting back on idling can have a big impact, so the telematics will often encourage as such.

Harsh braking is sometimes factored in too, though it is more to do with vehicle wear and driver safety than fuel usage. Braking too hard unnecessarily can mean the driver then needs to accelerate to get back up to speed, so avoiding that where possible can also be something telematics devices will try and help prevent.

Finally though, for the more advanced telematics devices, smart route monitoring can allow for drivers to avoid stop-start traffic jams, which can really cut into a vehicle’s fuel supply. By keeping an eye on local traffic reports and monitoring roadways to figure out what the most efficient route for a driver to take is, the telematics device can help skip over wasted time sitting in jams, which improves efficiency in terms of fuel, but also the driver’s job as well.

Emergency warning system

Telematics’ biggest impact on driver safety has been through encouraging better driver practices, but it can also come into play in the form of an automated emergency call should something go wrong. This is something that will be a mandatory part of all vehicles in the EU by the end of 2015, as part of the eCall initiative, but it’s something that some telematics devices can do already. In the event of an accident, they can take information from the vehicle like air bag deployment, GPS location and recent speed, all of which is then transmitted to local emergency services so that they can have some idea of what condition you might be in.

This not only gives emergency services better knowledge of how you are and therefore makes it easier for them to treat you effectively, but their response time is improved also, meaning that you have a much better chance of surviving a collision because of it.

Conclusion

Telematics as a whole is a pretty comprehensive suite of tools, features and functions and as time goes on it, is growing ever larger and ever more impressive. Chances are within a few years, telematics as we know it will be absorbed into the larger landscape of the Internet of Things and heavily connected vehicles, but for now, they operate in an interesting space between the future and the present, giving us a lot of features that just weren’t possible with cars not so long ago.

Of course telematics have been around in one guise or another for decades, but it’s only lately that they’ve really captured our imagination and begun making a real difference to the lives and businesses of many.

Hopefully you’ve found this piece interesting and can use it to help further your knowledge of telematics, letting you glean even more benefits from it than you already have. Or, if you haven’t installed telematics in your business vehicles yet… what are you waiting for?

Image sources: Nick Nyugen, Sean Macentee, MBWA PR

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.