Distracted driving is an automotive safety buzzword that has come to the fore over the past 12 months as state governments and federal legislators puzzle over how to handle the issues surrounding cell phone and mobile device use out on the road. Several automakers have responded by introducing new systems or adding to existing telematics initiatives in order to help streamline vehicle controls and reduce distractions in the cockpit.
Other car companies have focused their telematics systems on providing emergency services and other forms of convenience without such a high level of technological integration. These systems, while not as fully featured as the industry leaders, still offer a suite of safety related services to drivers.
Let’s take a look at the highlights of the six major automotive telematics systems currently on the market.
Photos courtesy of respective manufacturers
01. Ford SYNC
Ford SYNC was co-developed with software giant Microsoft and it has managed to impress through its combination of hands-free features and slick integration into entertainment, communications and other vehicle systems. In addition to being able to link any Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone to Ford’s hands-free calling feature, SYNC can also read incoming text messages out loud, which allows drivers to keep their attention on the road ahead. Voice commands that can control the stereo system and navigation features also help to reduce distractions.
SYNC also comes with a range of other available features, such as turn-by-turn directions, traffic alerts, travel services, emergency assistance and a vehicle health report that runs diagnostics on the automobile. SYNC fully integrates with most portable media devices (such as MP3 players) and best of all the hardware’s features can be expanded over time through software updates. There is no subscription fee for the majority of SYNC’s functionality.
02. Kia UVO
Kia UVO was also a joint Microsoft initiative, and it offers some similar functionality when compared against SYNC. UVO is more focused on providing voice control over a car’s multimedia systems than in providing the same broad-based features found in the Ford system, but like SYNC it does allow for text messages to be read out loud over a vehicle’s stereo speakers, and it also offers full Bluetooth integration and voice command functionality for making hands free calls. A call log and phone book are additionally provided, which helps to reduce fumbling with a mobile device and keeps Kia drivers that much more focused on the road around them.
When UVO is finally rolled out in the Spring of 2011, it will not require a subscription.
03. GM OnStar
The General Motors OnStar system is the grand-daddy of vehicle telematics in the United States. Traditionally, OnStar has been a subscription-based service that allows GM drivers access to features such as automatic crash response (which can send first responders directly to the scene of an accident), vehicle diagnostic services, the ability to have the car shut down in the event that it is stolen and a host of other operator-assisted services – both emergency and concierge-related. Hands-free calling through Bluetooth is also offered.
In order to keep up with Ford’s free SYNC feature, OnStar has recently developed a series of mobile phone apps called MyLink which allow drivers to access OnStar functionality from outside of their vehicles. GM is also currently in the process of rolling out a number of updates that could allow cars to read out Facebook news feed updates as well as text messages, incorporating pre-sent verbally-selected replies so as to reduce the distractions associated with driving and texting.
04. BMW Assist / BMW ConnectedDrive
BMW Assist is a tightly focused telematics program available by subscription from the German car company. The main safety features associated with BMW Assist are its hands-free calling support (with full voice control) and its range of emergency services such as automatic collision notification (similar to the OnStar automatic crash response feature), stolen vehicle recovery and operator-accessible roadside assistance.
BMW has also developed an updated system called ConnectedDrive which has trickled onto the market in 2011 editions of its automobiles. ConnectedDrive enables certain smart phones (currently Blackberry models built by RIM) to connect via Bluetooth to the automobile so that emails can be displayed on the vehicle’s screen or read out loud over its speakers. Once again, this reduces the chance that drivers will be distracted by the temptation of reading email from behind the wheel.
05. Toyota Safety Connect / Lexus Enform with Safety Connect
After many years of licensing the OnStar system for its vehicles, Toyota came out with its own in-house telematics service called Safety Connect in 2009. Safety Connect encompasses all of the standard features that one would expect to find in an operator-assisted service, such as emergency roadside assistance, remote vehicle diagnostics and the ability to automatically respond in the event of a crash by notifying rescue personnel of a vehicle’s location. Safety Connect can also help locate a stolen vehicle, but it can’t shut the automobile down remotely.
Lexus owners benefit from all of these safety services through the Enform with Safety Connect feature. Each of these telematics services is subscription-based.
06. Mercedes-Benz mbrace
Mercedes-Benz mbrace, like many premium telematics services, is heavily focused on providing concierge services and other travel assistance to its subscribers. However, it also offers a number of safety features: automatic collision notification (which activates should an airbag deploy), emergency roadside assistance and other services, the ability to locate and track a stolen car and what Mercedes-Benz calls “crisis assist,” which connects drivers to specially-trained operators who can help them get through a localized disaster such as a flood or a hurricane. The mbrace system can also be remotely accessed through the use of a smart phone.