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Car Tech 101: Telematics System Basics

Systems like OnStar Offer Security and Convenience at a Cost

The number of new telematics systems from automakers has more than doubled in recent years. Systems such as OnStar provide car owners and their families with peace of mind in case of a crash or a catastrophic event such as a tornado or other disaster. But they're not just for emergencies. The systems also offer navigation services and conveniences like remote door unlocking, to name just a couple of features. Now, manufacturers are linking telematics systems to smartphone apps, giving owners remote control over some aspects of their vehicles.

Telematics hardware comes built into vehicles. You don't pay extra for it. Their features and services are initially free on new cars. But once the trial period ends, you have to pay a monthly or yearly subscription to continue receiving the services.

To help you decide whether a telematics system is essential in your next new car, we put together the following info as part of our Car Tech 101 series. And since it's easy to get confused by telematics terminology, our Telematics Chart breaks down the features and services available from each automaker. The systems go by different names, but they do the same things.

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The goal of this article is to prepare you before you go into a dealer showroom or car lot. Also check out "How to Test-Drive a Telematics System" before visiting a dealer, and take along our Telematics Tech Checklist once you're there. Finally, this story, "How to Tech-Test-Drive Without Dealer Interference" gives tips on how to avoid hassles at a dealership while you're testing any consumer technology in a vehicle.

Security Services
Services such as vehicle-collision notification and emergency services are the core telematics features found on all systems. When a car's airbag deploys or other sensors are trigged, the vehicle-collision notification sends an alert to a telematics command center. An operator then contacts the car's occupants through the telematics system's built-in cellular modem to assess the situation. Once the car's occupants confirm there's been an accident — or if the operator doesn't get a response — the command center dispatches emergency-response personnel. A telematics system also pinpoints the car's location using GPS.

In addition, drivers can push a button to request emergency services for events ranging from severe weather to a critical medical condition. An operator will respond by contacting the appropriate authorities or by providing important information designed to handle the problem. Operators can also dispatch roadside assistance in case of a breakdown. They can even contact family or friends to let them know your location or that you're running late.

Most telematics systems offer stolen-vehicle assistance, such as locating a vehicle using GPS. OnStar can also keep the vehicle from starting once the engine is turned off and gradually slow the vehicle if police are pursuing it.

Convenience Services
Telematics systems offer various convenience features to help vehicle owners out of a nonemergency jam, or just make their lives easier. The system can remotely unlock a car's door after you've accidentally left the keys inside, for example. A telematics system can also flash a car's lights and sound the horn in a crowded parking lot to help you find it.

Many systems offer turn-by-turn directions, even if the vehicle doesn't have a navigation system. For vehicles that do have a nav system, a telematics operator may be able to directly send the nav system a destination that the driver requests. Telematics systems that offer "concierge" services can provide restaurant recommendations, the location of the nearest gas station and even flight information.

OnStar recently announced that in the future, a text-messaging feature will read texts from a connected Bluetooth phone, using text-to-speech technology. Hyundai's BlueLink system lets users dictate texts using speech-to-text technology. BlueLink also has an Eco Coach feature for tracking a car's fuel economy and CO2 emissions on an owners-only Web site. Drivers get onscreen feedback on how to improve their driving for better fuel efficiency and can compete against other Hyundai owners for prizes.

Telematics systems commonly feature vehicle diagnostics and maintenance reminders. OnStar, for example, sends out a monthly e-mail to subscribers with maintenance and diagnostic information on key vehicle systems. BMW Assist's TeleService transmits notifications to the car to remind the owner about scheduled maintenance. It can also schedule dealer service. Mercedes-Benz mbrace has a dealer-connect button that puts the driver in touch with an operator. Using data transmitted by the vehicle and information from the owner, the operator can contact the driver's preferred dealer to schedule a service appointment.

Calling and Internet-Connected Search
OnStar offers hands-free calling using the cellular modem embedded in the car, and subscribers can purchase prepaid minutes. BMW Assist's Convenience Plan allows subscribers to make up to four five-minute calls per year through the system if they forget their own cell phone or if it has a dead battery.

Luxury automakers typically kick things up a notch in terms of conveniences. Mercedes-Benz's mbrace system offers a service called Safe Ride that will contact a taxi company or help arrange other transportation if car owners feel they shouldn't drive. mbrace also has an alarm notification feature that alerts owners by phone, e-mail or text message when the vehicle's alarm activates for longer than 30 seconds.

BMW Search has an Internet-connected Google search of businesses and services that's tied to the car's navigation system. The feature also provides information on gas stations in an area and their fuel prices. It can even supply stock-market indices. BMW Assist and Mercedes-Benz mbrace both provide traffic information and weather forecasts.

Smartphone Apps
Telematics systems traditionally allow drivers to access services while they're in the car. Now smartphone apps for the systems let owners remotely control features while they're away from the car. Most telematics-system smartphone apps let you unlock a car's doors without having to call an operator. You can also remotely lock the doors if you forgot to do so before leaving the vehicle. OnStar's MyLink app also allows you to remotely start a vehicle. Hyundai's BlueLink lets you do a remote start via an app, a toll-free number or an owner's Web site.

Most telematics system apps also have a lights-flash and horn-sound feature that makes it easier to locate a car in a crowded parking lot. BMW Assist and Mercedes-Benz mbrace show a vehicle's location on a map. The BMW My Remote app for the iPhone also lets you set the climate controls and send destinations found on Google Maps to the car's navigation system.

Free Telematics
Ford offers subscription-free but limited telematics services with its Sync system for the first three years of ownership. Its 911 Assist automatically calls 911 on a connected Bluetooth phone if an airbag deploys or the fuel-shutoff valve activates in an accident. Sync's Vehicle Health Report provides owners with online diagnostic information and maintenance reminders via an online portal. Sync's Traffic, Direction and Information feature offers automated navigation to a requested location. It also reports traffic in an area and finds businesses and services.

Telematics systems provide peace of mind and conveniences — for a price. Fortunately, you can try them for while after you've purchased a vehicle and decide later if you want to continue paying for the features. With the information in this article and the other resources mentioned above, you can be well-informed about telematics when you walk into a dealership and decide if it's a make-or-break feature on your next new car.