Vehicle telemetry

OnStar Command Center Tour
Image by cletch via Flickr

Tapping remotely into a car’s data systems provides lots of useful services

IN THE early hours of the morning two men are robbed at gunpoint and ordered out of their Chevrolet Tahoe. The thief jumps in and roars off, but he does not get far. The vehicle is fitted with a telemetry system that provides a data link to a control centre. Soon after being reported stolen, the Tahoe is located by an operator who interrogates its satellite-navigation device. A signal is then sent to the engine-management system to prevent it restarting once stopped. Finally, once a police car has the Tahoe in view and the road ahead is clear, a second signal slows the engine down. The vehicle stops and the thief tries to run for it, but he is apprehended.

The robbery took place in California last month. It was the first time the “slowdown” feature had been activated by General Motors’ OnStar service to respond to a carjacking since it became available a year ago. However, 38 other cars have been slowed down remotely after other types of incident, such as the car having been stolen from a dealership, or to prevent a high-speed chase. OnStar itself was introduced in 1996 as a quick way to summon roadside assistance, but it has become increasingly sophisticated over the years and has nearly 6m subscribers in North America. Other carmakers are now offering or developing similar services, or plan to do so.

Some of these systems, like Ford’s SYNC, link up with the outside world through the driver’s mobile phone. Others, such as OnStar, have their own, private communications links. One way or another, a quarter of the world’s new cars will be equipped with some form of remote monitoring and control system by 2016, predicts Egil Juliussen, an analyst with iSuppli, a Californian company that monitors technology trends. The result will be cars that are not only impossible to steal, but can also call the emergency services if the airbags go off in an accident, make themselves more comfortable to drive before their owners get in, and even admit an owner who has mislaid his keys. (Every month more than 60,000 OnStar subscribers ask for the doors of their cars to be unlocked remotely, because they have locked themselves out.)

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