Where digital technology goes, ZDNet is sure to follow. Therefore, given the increasing prevalence of computer and communications technology in cars, it was only a matter of time before we began trespassing on Top Gear territory. We duly took delivery -- sadly temporary -- of a shiny new Mondeo fitted with Ford's Telematics system, which it has developed in conjunction with Vodafone.
Described as a 'personal in-car assistant', the Telematics system is based around hands-free GSM cellular and GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite technology, integrated into the car's audio system. On the Mondeo we tested, the model fitted was the 9000 VNR navigation system.
To access the Telematics functionality, you turn the radio on, wait for 30 seconds or so, and then press a button marked with a telephone icon. The screen will then display four icons, whose functions are accessed via adjacent soft keys. The icons are 'SOS' (emergency services), 'i' (operator services), 'T)))' (automated traffic information) and a telephone (voice-activated dialling).
The SOS service, which is free, is straightforward enough: in the event of an accident, you press the relevant button twice -- assuming you're capable of doing so -- and you'll be put through to the emergency services operator, who will ascertain whether you require police, ambulance, fire brigade or coast guard. Satellite positioning will give the operator your car's position, which should allow help to reach you quicker. If the accident is of sufficient violence to activate the car's airbag, the Telematics system automatically sends a data message to the emergency services operator.
Operator services form the main 'personal assistant' part of the Telematics system. Press the 'i' button twice and you're put through to a call centre (located in Birmingham, as the operators' accents will soon tell you) where you can get a whole range of location-based advice and information -- nearby hotels, restaurants, cash machines, filling stations, supermarkets, you name it. You can also get detailed routing instructions or summon roadside assistance via the operator. Operator services are charged at 75p per minute, with additional charges of 12p a go every time you have to press the 'i' button to update your position.
If all you want is traffic information, a less expensive option (45p per minute) is to press the 'T)))' button twice, which activates the automated real-time traffic information service. This delivers speech-synthesised information -- the robot voice is reasonably good -- on traffic conditions radiating out from your current location. If you need detailed routing instructions to avoid a hold-up, you'll have to call up a more expensive human via the 'i' button.
If you need to make calls while on the road -- and recent research (see below) suggests that you'd be best advised to do this when stationary -- the Telematics system supports sophisticated hands-free operation. The simplest way to operate this is to enter your most frequently used contacts into the Personal Contacts Book via Ford's Web site (www.ford.uk). Then you'll be able to speak your chosen contact's full name plus any other relevant information -- for example, 'Joe Bloggs at work' -- and the number will be dialled after you have confirmed it. You end a call either by saying 'goodbye', pressing the telephone button or pressing the Mode button on the remote audio control stalk to the left of the steering wheel. If you want to dial someone who isn't in your contacts book, you can enter a phone number verbally -- the system is intelligent enough to recognise phrases like 'double zero' or 'triple three', as well as the equivalence of 'zero' and 'oh'. The voice dialling system is perfectly usable, so long as you speak clearly and without unduly long pauses.
Ford and Vodafone provide the useful option of combining the in-car system and your regular mobile phone on the same number and airtime agreement -- this is called 'Multi-SIM'. When you're in the car with the Telematics system turned on, calls come through to there; if not, they go to your regular mobile. The Telematics unit can't take data calls, though, and any that are sent to you when you're in the car will be lost. Also, voicemail received in the car can only be accessed via your mobile or a land line.
We found the Ford/Vodafone Telematics system both straightforward to use -- after a little practice -- and useful. However, recent research by the Transport Research Laboratory has suggested that reaction times for drivers using mobiles -- even hands-free ones -- are significantly slower than for those who are under the influence of alcohol. In our brief experience, it's certainly possible to become distracted both by the technology and by phone conversations when driving. More research -- and possibly some legislation -- will undoubtedly be required to elucidate and address these concerns, especially as Vodafone says it is considering adding functionality like email, text messaging and Internet access to the Telematics mix.
In-car computer and communications technology undoubtedly has a lot to offer, but car manufacturers, network operators, safety groups and governments will all need to be aware of the potential dangers too.