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Automakers are loading new cars with an array of wireless communications and computing technologies, known collectively as telematics. But despite the unending variety of safety, convenience, and entertainment features telematics can enable, it has thus far held little appeal outside the United States; even in the United States, only 2.2 million of 17.7 million new automobiles were equipped with telematics in 2003. The number of North American subscribers to telematics services, however, is projected to increase by a factor of five over the next five years. No wonder General Motors is incorporating the technology into more than 50 of its models. And this year marks the debut on the U.S. market of cars from Japanese automakers equipped with telematics systems developed in house. Here are some of the latest telematics features from these and other car companies.

Mobile networking
Telematics services could face competition from mobile phones on a variety of fronts, including communication, Internet access, and location-based services. Consequently, some automakers plan to equip their cars with Bluetooth wireless connections or docking stations so that they can network with phones. The proportion of Bluetooth-enabled handsets in North America increased 65 percent in 2004 to about one-third of all handsets; at the same time, the number of Bluetooth-equipped vehicle models grew by 40 percent. ABI Research predicts that worldwide, there will be 22 million vehicles – one-fifth of the total – factory fitted with Bluetooth hardware in 2008.

Emergency notification services
Telematics consumers are overwhelmingly drawn to services that will enhance their security and safety. Both OnStar and fellow telematics firm ATX Technologies offer such services: in the event that an air bag inflates, for instance, each system automatically alerts an operator who can call for an ambulance. The systems can also track stolen vehicles and unlock doors remotely.

Dynamic navigation
The first service that GPS-based telematics companies like GM-backed OnStar offered was driving directions based on a car’s location. This hasn’t proven popular with consumers, who often let service subscriptions lapse. More likely to pique their interest is dynamic navigation, which provides directions that take into account current traffic conditions. Two 2005 models have this feature, Honda’s Acura RL and GM’s Cadillac CTS.

Digital entertainment
Bluetooth enables entertainment applications such as downloading music files and streaming audio and video through the latest high-end audio systems from Acura, DaimlerChrysler, BMW, and Toyota. BMW is also offering an interface with the Apple iPod. And to encourage the after-sale integration of such capabilities, the Consumer Electronics Association adopted the in-vehicle networking standard MOST (Media Oriented Systems Transport) in 2004.

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