In the western world, drivers and passengers spend a significant part of their lives in cars. In Europe, the figure is 274 hours per person a year, while in the US it is 541 hours a year.*
Collectively, Americans spend almost a billion hours a week in their vehicles. Thus, the car represents an environment which cannot be ignored by telematic service providers. Drivers, passengers and roving employees represent a key potential market where software and hardware vendors hope to extend information access beyond the desktop computer.
What motorists can expect down the road can be glimpsed from first-generation in-car information or telematic systems pioneered by General Motors' OnStar unit.
A million drivers of the GM up-market vehicles have so far signed up for OnStar's service, which offers emergency services' notification of airbag deployment, global positioning satellite (GPS)-based stolen vehicle tracking and operator-assisted route assistance and hotel-booking, among other services.
However, computer companies and their automotive partners are gearing up to offer motorists far more than just peace of mind. Future-generation telematics systems will be platforms for comprehensive information and entertainment services.
"Telematics will move from safety and security to leisure and convenience," says Harel Kodesh, chief executive of Wingcast, a San Diego company formed last July by Ford and Qualcomm, the wireless technology vendor, to develop in-car communications and internet access systems.
Future systems promise to transform the humble dashboard into a sophisticated voice-activated computer interface. Motorists - keeping their eyes on the road and both hands on the steering wheel - will be able to download travel and weather data from the web, access e-mail, make cellular phone calls, and purchase fuel online before arriving at a filling station, for instance.
An internal network will allow them to keep tabs on parts, receiving an alert when a service is due, or performing diagnostics, such as checking tyre pressure. Meanwhile, to make the journey go faster, MP3 music files could be played and, for passengers, there would be movies on DVD or videos streamed over the internet.
While OnStar will debut a proof-of-concept internet-based system aboard GM Cadillac cars this summer, the spectre of a robust, upgradeable infotainment platform remains on the horizon. To this end, the software and hardware industry are extending technology standards developed for other forms of mobile computing.
Sun Microsystems is seeking to establish the Java programming language, which makes programs available across multiple hardware platforms from mainframe computers to hand-held devices, as the de facto standard for in-car software applications. This would tap a 3m-strong developer community and harness the wealth of existing programs written for cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs), explains Jim DeStefano, strategic marketing manager, Java consumer and embedded group at Sun.
Sun's vision enjoys powerful industry backing from OnStar, which struck a co-development pact with the computing company last October. OnStar is banking on boosting sales to carmakers beyond parent GM with a system that would work on different dashboard hardware. The proposed Java standard will be based on Sun's Java 2 Micro Edition platform with new application programming interfaces specially written for automobiles.
Using Java as the lingua franca for in-car programs is also being endorsed by IBM. The company is collaborating with Intel on the development of a non-proprietary telematics standard using its VisualAge Micro Edition Java application development tools, teamed with Intel's Xscale microchip architecture for mobile computers.
The market may decide the standard
The ultimate say on ratification of an official in-car computing standard rests with the Automotive Multimedia Interface Collaboration, a not-for-profit worldwide grouping of carmakers. But that effort may be held back by the recent defection of BMW and DaimlerChrysler from the grouping's ranks. However, in the absence of official standard setting, the market may make industry's decision for it.
This was the way Microsoft captured the desktop software market with its Windows operating system. And the software leader is banking on the market momentum of Windows helping it take the chequered flag in the automotive computing race, too.
In October, Microsoft unveiled a new edition of Windows CE for Automotive, a version of its stripped-down wireless computing operating system, optimised for in-car use. Meanwhile, in a measure of the importance it is attaching to the market, the company has corralled cars into its .NET vision of ubiquitous distribution of web services under car.NET, a blueprint for the connected vehicle.
Microsoft won a head start on its software rivals in automotive computing, hitting the road in 1998 with the AutoPC. But the dashboard-mounted console managed just 3,500 sales, amid complaints that it was over specified.
Post AutoPC, Microsoft envisages everyday mobile devices at the centre of in-car computing. With interoperability between mobile devices and dashboard computers under the car, the .NET blueprint would allow cells phones to unlock, heat, cool and start cars, for instance.
Mobile devices also feature prominently in other software and hardware vendors' technology models. MobilAria, Palm's telematics joint venture with vehicle parts manufacturer Delphi Automotive, unveiled a prototype hands-free in-car system based on a standard PDA and cell phone earlier this year.
The Communiport Mobile Productivity Centre will permit drivers to access the address book on their Palm V or Vx hand-held computer, then make calls using certain models of Ericsson cell phone - all without their hands leaving the steering wheel.
Ease-of-upgrade and extensibility are watchwords for in-car computing, agree IT executives. This means developing modular software systems that can be added to throughout the life-span of a car. New software releases could be downloaded via a PDA docked in a dashboard port, or over the internet.
"It is vital to de-couple hardware and wireless connectivity from the user interface," adds Mr DeStefano at Sun. This, in turn, leaves motorists free to upgrade from CD to DVD format, for instance, or take advantage of the nascent 802.11 wireless networking standard for compressed digital video and audio content and upcoming third-generation networks.
The computer companies have their eyes on potentially rich pickings if they plan correctly. Motorists' appetite for connectivity is revealed in the 85 per cent of cell phone users in the US who are reckoned to conduct calls from vehicles.
Demand will be led at first by the car makers themselves, however. "Telematics systems are primarily customer relationship management tools," explains Jonathan Lawrence, telematics analyst at New York investment bank Dain Rauscher Wessels. "After the point of sale, car companies never see the customer. Then, four years later, they try to win back the customer again with a commercial."
Systems could be used to promote after-sales service such as directing drivers back to dealerships for a tune-up. There is also potential for manufacturers to use wireless internet-based connections with internal vehicle networks to perform remote troubleshooting on engine problems. This would allow them to defray costs set aside for maintenance work covered under warranty agreements, says Mr Lawrence.
Meanwhile, selling location-based advertising slots for local merchants to target passing motorists is a potentially lucrative earner.
Possible legislative controls, reservations about the robustness of speech recognition software, squabbling over software standards and still-patchy cellular coverage represent potential delays on the technology roadmap.
Nevertheless, an increasingly sure grasp of the business case and user-interface requirements, mean that in-car computing is no longer an idea in search of a market.
* Sources: Commerzbank; Roland Berger report