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Portable Portal

Take Quick-Scout, a telematics package Siemens Automotive hopes to deploy commercially in 2002. Siemens wants to offer people a visual interface with their wireless services. But building a liquid crystal display into the dash is expensive, so the company plans to borrow a display-and storage and processing power-from a Palm Pilot or other handheld device that would slip into a docking cradle.

That would not only hold down costs but also provide in-vehicle access to electronic address books, phone lists and schedules. It would also offer more seamless connection between the car and the rest of the driver’s life-since whatever was downloaded in the vehicle could be carried outside, and vice versa. “That’s where we think we’re going to get the high take rates,” says Harry Asher, senior engineer for Siemens Automotive’s Driver Information Systems group in Auburn Hills, MI. “With a system like this, the car in every way can become like a portal to the Internet and the world.”

Siemens already has prototype versions of the system running. Slide a Palm V into a cradle mounted in front of a Dodge Durango’s main console, start the car and the telematics program springs into action. Four choices appear on the Palm’s screen: Navigation, Traffic, News, Messages. Turning and pushing a knob on the cradle-or soon a simple voice command-selects the choice you want.

Say you need directions to an appointment. Select Navigation. The Palm shows various submenus: Address Book, Points of Interest, Street Addresses and Recent Destinations. No matter which submenu you choose, you can either enter an address directly or just the first few letters of your contact’s name, and Quick-Scout will scour the Palm’s directory and flash the corresponding address on the screen. Accepting the address starts things going: “Calling service provider,” a tinny voice reports.

Instead of linking to a call center and having you talk to an operator-humans are both expensive and a potential bottleneck if telematics systems and services expand as anticipated-Quick-Scout locates your position by GPS and sends a request to an information services provider. The service company’s system calculates the route and downloads turn-by-turn directions-all in about 40 seconds. To help you get oriented, the Palm screen first presents an area map of your location. Once you’re moving, the scene shifts to a closer view of the street you’re on, with big arrows showing the correct route. Voice prompts help ensure you get things right: “Please make a legal U-turn ahead.”

In the same way, you can access traffic information, news and messages, including e-mail, which Quick-Scout renders aloud. And, says Asher, the system won’t lock you into one automaker’s vehicles, as OnStar does.

DaimlerChrysler also likes visual displays. Last fall, Mercedes-Benz’s Tele Aid began making Internet-based services such as stock quotes and news accessible as text displayed on the dashboard screen that is already standard on luxury cars for things like navigation and audio control. (OnStar made similar features available nationally this year with its speech-only Virtual Advisor option.) But as costs fall, DaimlerChrysler hopes to offer similar services on more mainstream vehicles.

One big focus of DaimlerChrysler’s current telematics R&D is entertainment. A Dodge MAXXcab’s back seat boasts two kids’ stations, each with a video-game controller, and a shared central screen for playing games or watching movies. Steve Buckley, DaimlerChrysler’s manager of electric product innovation, demonstrates how a prototype ultrasonic loudspeaker technology from MIT’s Media Laboratory called the audio spotlight can create up to four audio zones-for the driver and three passengers-that are effectively inaudible to each other. “If your child’s watching the latest Pokmon movie in the back seat, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to hear it in the front seat,” he says. “I want to play MP3 files.”

Similar systems are central to just about everybody’s car of the future-and even though the jury is still out on their exact form, autos are undergoing a transformation to get ready. Many new cars have already become antenna farms, carrying separate aerials for AM/FM and GPS, and two for dual-band cellular. Coming down the pike are antennas for satellite radio, short-range wireless and maybe TV.

All this sets the stage for even more exotic telematics applications. Many automakers expect that eventually every car will monitor its own systems. If your vehicle notices a problem, it may communicate that information to your garage, and even consult your calendar to schedule a convenient service appointment. Sensor data about the car’s speed and location might also be used to update traffic reports. And telematics gurus gush about the “information filling station.” Bandwidth suffers when the receiver is in motion, limiting the amount of data deliverable to a moving car. So one idea is that when you pull up to a gas station or convenience store your car could also fill up with information using a short-range wireless protocol such as the already available 802.11b standard. Says OnStar’s chief technology officer Dennis Walsh, “When [the car] is stationary you can access local networks of malls, loading music and so forth.”

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