Most car shoppers know what telematics is, even if they're not familiar with the term. Thanks to OnStar's prevalence on GM vehicles and pervasive marketing efforts, telematics has become synonymous with the company's services — in much the same way that Kleenex can stand for tissue and Xerox for copiers.
Telematics is an awkward word used to describe systems like OnStar that can transmit information — such as whether there's been an accident — from a vehicle to the outside world, and also allows car occupants to call for help. Beyond safety, telematics systems also include convenience features such as remote door unlocking, a live "concierge" to help find services nearby and turn-by-turn navigation.
After years of incremental changes in telematics services offered by automakers, a spate of new systems has been recently introduced that offer the core safety features as well as cutting-edge conveniences such as the ability to check a car's status from a mobile phone. And while car owners pay a monthly subscription fee for the service once an initial free trial period ends, Ford has taken the radical route of making its telematics services a no-cost part of its Sync system.
OnStar Goes On and On
OnStar, which is owned by GM, may be the best known telematics system, but the company hasn't exactly rested on its reputation since launching in 1996. Over the years OnStar has systematically added new services and innovations such as hands-free calling, vehicle diagnostics and turn-by-turn navigation.
Last year a feature called eNav debuted that allows an owner to send a destination directly from MapQuest to an OnStar system, while another called Destination Download lets an OnStar operator send an address to a vehicle with a dedicated navigation system at a subscriber's request. Earlier this year OnStar added features that, working with law enforcement, can safely slow a stolen car and bring it to a halt and prevent it from starting again once it's stopped.
OnStar plans include Safe & Sound for $18.95 a month or $199 a year (that includes everything but navigation features) and Directions & Connections for $28.90 a month or $299 a year.
Telematics by Any Other Name
OnStar initially offered its technology and services to other automakers, and the system was available on vehicles from Acura, Audi, Isuzu, Lexus and Volkswagen. But in early 2005, GM decided to make the service exclusive to the company's vehicles, although early in 2009 OnStar suggested it may start shopping the system around again. None of these automakers, with the exception of Lexus, continued with their own telematics systems in the U.S, although Acura has a system only for owner/dealership communications and vehicle maintenance reminders.
Until recently, OnStar provided a private-label system for Lexus called LexusLink, but in 2009 parent company Toyota introduced its own telematics system, Safety Connect, and another level of service called Enform that's exclusive to Lexus vehicles. The basic Safety Connect system is available on certain Toyota and Lexus vehicles manufactured after the fall of 2009, and it's free for the first year of ownership, after which it costs $139.95 a year. It provides automatic collision notification, emergency and roadside assistance, remote door unlock and stolen vehicle location.
Lexus Enform adds such conveniences as concierge assistance to find Points of Interest (POIs) in an area and transmit the directions to a vehicle's navigation system. Enform also has a feature like OnStar's eNav that allows you to send a destination found online to a car's nav system, and live weather and traffic info is supplied by XM Satellite Radio. The system can also provide detailed information about the features of a vehicle, exclusive offers at hotels and restaurants in an area where the owner is driving and audio programs from a Lexus owners' magazine. Enform costs $264.90 a year.
BMW introduced its own telematics system, currently called BMW Assist, in 1997 under a different name, and Mercedes-Benz debuted TeleAid in 1999. Both offer many of the same safety and convenience features as OnStar, and BMW recently enhanced its base safety plan by adding a "send to" function similar to OnStar's eNav, but using Google Maps instead of MapQuest.
A feature of the extra-cost Convenience plan called BMW Search uses a Google connection via the car's navigation system to search for POIs as well as obtain local fuel prices, weather info and stock market indices from Bloomberg. The Convenience plan also includes concierge services, traffic reports and a Critical Calling feature for when drivers forget their cell phone or the battery dies.
BMW Assist is standard on the X5 M, X6 M, M5, M6 and 5, 6 and 7 Series vehicles and also those with the Premium package option, and it's available as an option on all other models. On 2007 model-year vehicles and later, the Safety plan is free for the first four years of ownership and on 2006 vehicles and earlier, it's free for one year. After the complimentary trial period it costs $199 a year. The Convenience plan upgrade is another $199 per year.
Mercedes-Benz recently launched an entirely new system called mbrace, which replaces TeleAid. It offers all of the telematics staples, and a premium plan called mbrace Plus adds destination download, weather and traffic info, and concierge service. But what really sets mbrace apart is that it's the first telematics system to use a smart phone like a BlackBerry or iPhone to allow an owner to remotely lock or unlock doors or find a vehicle on a map on the phone's screen. Mercedes plans to add apps to the system on an ongoing basis.
After six months of complimentary service (or three months on Mercedes certified pre-owned vehicles), which includes both mbrace and mbrace Plus, the basic mbrace service costs $280 a year. It costs $20 a month to add mbrace Plus, and discounts are offered for long-term contracts.
Ford Brings Free to Telematics
Ford also began offering telematics services in 2009 through its Sync system and has announced plans to introduce phone apps that will allow owners remote control over their cars. But the major difference in Ford's approach to telematics is that instead of using an embedded system like other automakers, the company uses the Sync system's Bluetooth capability to connect an owner's cell phone to emergency assistance, navigation and traffic info and other services. And all of Ford's telematics features are absolutely free.
Car owners need only pair their phone with Sync to get 911 Assist, which automatically dials 911 if an airbag deploys or the fuel pump shuts off in a crash. And if car occupants can't speak, a pre-recorded message is sent to the 911 operator. Owners can also set up via the Sync Web site to receive online Vehicle Health Reports that show diagnostics info, maintenance schedules and recall alerts. Ford recently rolled out another Sync feature called Traffic, Directions and Information (TDI) that allows a driver to get turn-by-turn directions as well as POI, traffic, news, weather and sports info.
While all of these services are free, the downside of the Sync telematics system is that it's only as good as the owner's phone and its connection: If you lose a signal or the phone is damaged in an accident, it doesn't work. But besides savings on a monthly subscription, Sync's mobile phone-based system allows car owners to use it in multiple Ford vehicles.
The Cost of Safety and Convenience
OnStar doesn't provide exact numbers on how many car owners continue to subscribe to the service once their free trial period is over, but the company has said that it's more than 60 percent and that its business is profitable. This must be the case, since other automakers are either continuing with their current systems or introducing new ones and also adding new features. Although the primary lure of telematics is the safety net it provides, the technology's convenience features are essential to keeping people hooked on telematics — even if they don't know what to call it.
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