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Vehicular Puppetry with No Strings Attached

Wireless technology to interact with your car through the Internet makes its debutA prototype from Telcordia Technologies may be reason to revive the phrase “information superhighway.” Telcordia, a Lucent Technologies spinoff that provides network software and services, has outfitted a four-door Ford sedan with a wireless communications system that uses the Internet to let car owners control and monitor their vehicles.

Hong Cheng, senior scientist at Piscataway-based Telcordia, says the owner of a stolen car embedded with the system could kill its engine remotely by accessing the Web through a handheld device like a Blackberry. Managers of automotive fleets would be able to go online to check their cars’ speed and location through the Global Positioning System. Other features would include e-mail alerts from the car when it’s time for an oil change, and direct-to-dashboard downloads of music and so-called podcasts—prerecorded digital broadcasts.

“The system talks to components in the vehicle and [to] the user,” says Cheng. “It’s a very personalized service.”

Telcordia is talking with Ford and other automakers about adding the system as a pre- or post-market option for their vehicles, Cheng says. The company is also in negotiations with digital-content and roadside-assistance companies to be exclusive providers for the system. Prices for the wireless system and its menu of services have not yet been set. Cheng expects the platform to hit the market by the end of 2007.

The wireless-equipped Ford Five Hundred falls in the growing category of telematics—an area of technology that describes the marriage of telecommunications, computers and mobility. The best-known example in the auto world is produced by OnStar, a driver-services company based in Troy, Mich.

Certain features offered by OnStar, a General Motors subsidiary, are mimicked by Telcordia’s system. They include e-mails about the car’s computerized diagnostics and remote door unlocking. The main difference is that OnStar’s customers are served by a call center that handles things like contacting OnStar subscribers when their airbags are set off. During such a scenario, an OnStar operator may follow up with a call to 911, depending on a subscriber’s response, or lack thereof.

OnStar is a factory-installed option on more than 50 GM models and some Acuras and Isuzus, according to a company spokesperson. It is built into the price of the vehicles, but as a stand-alone extra the system costs $695. The service is free for the first year with the purchase of a new vehicle and then offered at $16.95 per month for the basic package or $34.95 per month for more options.

Telcordia’s platform can be fitted to any type of vehicle and allows the owner direct access to the information generated by the system, says Cheng.

Companies like limousine services that operate fleets would benefit from Telcordia’s system, says Barry Lefkowitz, executive director of the Limousine Associations of New Jersey, a trade group in Swedesboro with more than 200 member companies. “From an efficiency standpoint, it would be extremely helpful if you could track when the vehicle is stopped and how long it’s stopped for,” he says. “It would help the operator get a complete picture.”

But with killer competition, non-negotiable corporate contracts and the high cost of gasoline and auto insurance, most Garden State limo companies—85% of which are one-to-three car operators—can’t afford many new gadgets, Lefkowitz says. Even GPS devices are rarely found among limo company drivers, who usually check Websites for directions before they head out, he says.

Still, we may be getting closer to the day when every U.S. car contains something just like Telcordia’s technology. Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII) was one of nine initiatives launched in 2004 by Intelligent Transportation Systems, a program within the U.S. Department of Transportation. VII promotes a reduction in driving accidents through the creation of a high-tech interstate framework in which all vehicles are able to communicate with one another and with the roads. Digital warnings from the street to the vehicle could alert a driver to avoid an intersection because of an accident, for example. The nine programs are part of an ongoing project kicked off by the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

Telcordia’s platform “could be an important step on the way to a highway utopia,” says Gregory Beat, lead network and telecommunications consultant with Compass, an IT firm based in Guildford, U.K., with two U.S. offices. “It’s a logical step in the evolution of communication within and between vehicles.”

Beat says that while most of what Telcordia offers already exists, its technology will likely catch on because it “provides a mechanism for communication to occur between mobile devices and vehicles,” and “takes advantage of the public Internet structure.”

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