Hughes Thinks Inside the Box

A new telematics system may give troubled Chrysler the smartest cars on the road

PHOTO: Hughes Telematics

In a month or so, the financially strapped company soon to be formerly known as Chrysler will roll its 2010 models into its remaining showrooms. Some will carry a nondescript box, about the size of a high school textbook, that will ”change the way we relate to our cars.”

Or at least so says Tom Taylor, vice president for engineering development at Atlanta-based Hughes Telematics. To show how the device will ”become an entity in the life of the person in the vehicle,” Taylor pulled up to IEEE Spectrum’s New York City offices in an SUV outfitted with the game-changing hardware. Soon enough, I wished I was in the market for a high-end vehicle—that’s where envy-inducing technologies debut, long before they trickle down to the cars a tech journalist can afford.

In addition to a GPS radio—which allows authorities to locate you in case of an accident or lets you find the nearest pizza joint in a food emergency—and Bluetooth and 3G cellular for two-way voice and data, the system will link the car to the outside world via Wi-Fi and satellite. Having these modes of communication in a car is nothing new. But Hughes seems to have considered every detail regarding how the driver might use them.

Take, for instance, a feature that Hughes calls conversational voice. Address this ”context-based intelligent command system” with a question like ”What’s the weather for New York City?” and conversational voice will grab a satellite weather feed and instantly reply, ”Current conditions for New York include…” That sounds a bit like GM’s OnStar system or Ford’s Sync, but Chrysler’s is fully automated—and smart: To prove the system didn’t need the keyword ”weather,” Taylor then asked, ”Is it raining in Seattle?”

Taylor could barely contain a grin when next he pressed the prompt button and said, ”Get my morning report.” The car replied, Hello, Tom. The price of gold is down today. You should take Route X because there is a construction blockage on Route Y. Gas is lowest at Shell—just $1.68 a gallon—as I see your tank is getting low. Tom, have a nice day and drive safe.

Asked about the gas recommendation, Taylor said, ”It accessed the CAN-bus and saw that the fuel level was below a preset threshold.” The controller-area-network bus is the vehicle’s internal local-area network, the grid that carries data from all its sensors and gauges.

This ability to do continuous diagnostics will change vehicle maintenance, says Taylor. ”Imagine the ’check engine’ light comes on: The system reads the diagnostic trouble code, sees that the problem has something to do with the transmission, and can automatically send an alert to the dealer’s service department so a mechanic can contact the driver to schedule an appointment and order parts if necessary.”

Taylor also demonstrated how the system uses Wi-Fi to help the driver keep his or her eyes on the road. It can download and read e-mails and text messages aloud and is smart enough to decipher ”textisms” like ”TTYL” (talk to you later) and ”LOL” (laughing out loud) and read them out in plain English.

Drivers will be able to personalize their vehicles on their home computers via the Hughes Telematics Web portal, deciding whether sports, weather, stock prices, or news are to be included in their own morning reports. The system will look at local traffic conditions for three or four preestablished routes each day, decide which is best, and say why.

Without prompting, the system connects to the Wi-Fi network at the driver’s home to upload any new settings. You can also connect via Wi-Fi at restaurants and convenience stores to download songs and video clips while you’re fueling up on gas or coffee.

Hughes’s magic box also supports widgets, small dedicated software programs that can be easily popped up and then returned to the background. Taylor showed off one that displays the car’s instantaneous fuel consumption as well as its carbon dioxide emissions. ”If I stomp on the gas and my CO2 emissions go above a certain level, up pops a ’green tip’ showing how I can reduce my carbon emissions.”

How much does all this add to a car’s sticker price? Taylor couldn’t say, noting that it will depend on which capabilities the auto company soon to be formerly known as Chrysler wishes to include on a given model. And has the company given the ”entity in the life of the person in the vehicle” a name? Taylor couldn’t answer that either. But some drivers will surely be tempted to dub it ”Hal” or ”Kitt.”

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