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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Promise of Telematics

LONDON -- Growing use of computers and telecommunications will cut accidents, unravel traffic jams, guide drivers through unfamiliar terrain, and curb pollution, car manufacturers expect.

They also hope this convergence of technology, known as telematics, will become a burgeoning new business which will disarm critics who say car use must be curbed because it is increasingly anti-social and environmentally damaging.

In the first decade of the next century, people will only have to drive cars in cities and obscure rural areas. Elsewhere, the computer will take over. The family car will be driven to the nearest main road, the destination will be punched into its computer which will lock on to the cable system under the road. The car will then drive itself across the highway network and deposit the occupants close to their destination.

The telematics system will have avoided traffic jams, taken avoiding action if an accident threatened, and kept a safe distance between other cars as it sped at 240 kilometers per hour down the fast lane.

Currently, the industry is able to offer only comparatively mundane technological gadgets, but an exhibition in Paris this week hopes to ignite public and government enthusiasm for telematics and demonstrate the progress that the industry has already made.

The exhibition, organized by the European car lobby Association des Constructeurs Europeens d'Automobiles (ACEA), runs until Dec. 3 at the Palais des Congres, Porte Maillot.

"We want to spur a new partnership between industry and local authorities," John Hollis, the ACEA's director for transport policy told said in a telephone interview from his Brussels office.

"This exhibition should focus public interest. If we can do that it will make it easier for companies to justify the huge investments needed," Hollis said.

German luxury car maker BMW is the only European company so far to offer one of these infant devices -- a navigation system in its latest "7" series saloon. Costing just under $2,000, the system developed by Philips Electronics NV of the Netherlands locks on to satellites and guides the driver with instructions from a voice synthesizer.

Business opportunities will be huge. In a recent report, London's Economist Intelligence Unit estimated the world market for vehicle navigation devices would explode from about $1 billion next year to $8 billion by 2000. The value of in-car semiconductors, which perform at the heart of computers, will zoom to $10 billion by 2000 from $4.5 billion next year.

"The Japanese, as usual, have got the ball rolling. They've got the costs down to realistic levels, with the car and electronic industries working together," said Peter Schmidt, joint managing director of British automotive consultancy AID.

According to the EIU, more than 140,000 navigation devices were sold in Japan last year, and more than 250,000 are expected this year. Leading suppliers include Sony, Pioneer Electric and Nippondenso. Rockwell International of the United States and Robert Bosch of Germany are also prominent in the business.

But progress in Europe may be hindered by lack of political will. Before companies are prepared to put up the massive investments to supply car makers with electronic hardware, governments across Europe will also have to commit huge sums to build the infrastructure for car computers to lock on to. Standards have to be agreed to allow compatibility of telematics devices. Rules are needed to sort out legal responsibility when such devices fail.

"It's hard to see how Europe can put this together in a reasonably short time. They can't even coordinate speed limits or licence plates. And the infrastructure is going to cost billions. Who's going to pay for that?" said Vic Heylen, managing director of the European Center for Automotive Studies in Antwerp, Belgium.

But if the car is not to fall victim to its own popularity, answers are urgently required. According to the ACEA, there are 140 million cars on Europe's roads, and this will increase by between 30 and 40 percent by 2010.

Gridlock is the prospect, or an expensive increase in road building. The industry hopes telematics may provide a third and more palatable choice.

"Traffic density and congestion is going to get much worse without the new technology," said AID's Schmidt." Telematics can push it through alternative channels. It will get an efficient flow of traffic that otherwise would mean a massive traffic jam."

"The future is very exciting. You'll get cars guided automatically across Europe from door to door. On the motorways they can switch from petrol power and key on to electric current just like a train to cut emissions. It's all technically possible now but will we see the investment?" wonders Schmidt.