Telematics is a somewhat loaded term that can apply to such a huge variety of systems and technologies that it’s fairly easy for the average motorist to get lost in all the cross traffic. In a very broad sense, telematics refers to the intersection of automotive and telecommunications, but also refers to any technology that is used to send, receive and store information and remotely control other devices.

Telematics is connected in some way to everything from insurance premiums in the automotive industry to fleet tracking and connected cars, and, further complicating the task, virtually every modern OEM infotainment system includes a number of telematic functions, to the point that they are sometimes called even telematic systems .

The difference between infotainment and telematics

If there seems to be a huge, blurry, gray line between infotainment and telematic system in cars, that’s because it is. In most infotainment systems, telematics makes up a huge part of the «information» part of the portmanteau. This information often includes GPS navigation with external maps and route calculations, the cell-based concierge serves for collision warning systems and other functions that are firmly rooted in vehicle telematics, while the entertainment part includes traditional head unit functions such as radio tuners and media players.

GM OnStar is one of the original subscription-based OEM telematics systems and also one of the most famous . To understand how telematics differs from infotainment, it’s helpful to look at the evolution of OnStar, which started as a simple button and cellular connection with a concierge service. Drivers were able to access the same information you can get from today’s infotainment systems, like driving directions, but all the hard work was done off site rather than using the on-board computer.

All of the original OnStar telematics features are still available in current model GM vehicles, although many of these vehicles now include additional features you’d expect from today’s infotainment systems, such as touch displays, media players, and on-screen GPS navigation rather than just voice step by step instructions without a visual component.

Telematic systems for cars

Automotive telematics equipment can be as simple as the original OnStar technology with buttons and speakerphone, or it can include visual and touch screen elements combined with modern infotainment systems. In any case, the hardware usually consists of a cellular radio and/or modem and some method for operating it while the heavy lifting is done off site. With that in mind, telematics equipment often comes standard or comes with a navigation or infotainment option and usually includes a free trial subscription.

OEM telematics systems include many features that can be grouped into four main categories: convenience services, security and safety services, voice and internet services, and smartphone integration. Each function is related to automotive technology and telecommunications in some way; availability differs from one OEM to another.

Convenient telematics features

Because telematics can allow a remote operator to activate various systems in a vehicle, a number of features offered by various telematics systems are designed to make your life easier in some way. For example, if you lock yourself out of your car, many telematics systems allow you to call a service to remotely unlock your doors, while others allow you to do so via a smartphone app. Likewise, telematics can sometimes be used to turn on your headlights or horn if you’re having trouble remembering where your car was parked.

Another handy feature that has been around since the original OnStar system is concierge services. In vehicles that have telematics but no GPS navigation, telematics can often be used to request the direction of a turn. The process can be automated, or a human operator can accept the request, after which the GPS navigation system at the other end of the call will track the location of the vehicle and automatically provide turn-by-turn directions. In the same vein, concierge navigation services can often be used to find restaurants, gas stations, and other points of interest.

Some telematics systems are capable of dictating and reading text messages, sending maintenance reminders, providing real-time information on fuel economy and vehicle performance, and a host of other convenience-based services.

Telematic safety and security functions

Getting rid of convenience, safety and security is really the heart of all car telematics systems. Because telematics systems include built-in cellular radios, they essentially keep you connected to the outside world even if you don’t have a cell phone, which can be extremely helpful in the event of an accident.

One of the central features of many telematics systems is automatic collision alert . This feature links various vehicle systems into telematics and automatically connects to the operator if certain conditions are met. For example, if the airbags deploy, the telematics system can be designed to automatically connect to the operator, or even connect to a dedicated dedicated emergency services system.

The operator will then attempt to establish contact with the occupants of the vehicle. If there is no response or the passengers confirm that an accident has occurred, the operator can contact the emergency services to send a certificate. Because a serious accident can cause vehicle occupants to pass out or otherwise be unable to reach or use their cell phones, this type of telematics service can and does save lives.

Other safety features are available outside of the crash notification. For example, some telematics systems have built-in theft recovery features, and they also typically provide access to concierge-based emergency services to fix problems and problems that would not otherwise trigger an accident alert system — such as a sudden illness.

Voice and internet telematics

Because telematics systems include built-in cellular radios or modems, some of these systems allow speakerphone without the need for a cell phone. For example, OnStar-equipped vehicles allow you to make calls directly from the OnStar system without having to phone pairing , although you need to purchase airtime to do so. Other systems allow you to make emergency calls or provide a certain number of free calls or minutes each year, which can be useful if your phone is dying and you really need to get in touch with someone.

Other telematics systems go further and use a built-in cellular modem to provide information from the Internet. For example, some systems allow users to search the Internet for local businesses, locate the nearest gas station, or find other points of interest. Other systems are capable of extracting navigation traffic data from the Internet, which can be applied in real time to assist in GPS route planning or simply to help drivers avoid congested areas.

Smartphone app Integration of telematics systems

Some telematics features have traditionally relied on concierge-type settings, while others have used the infotainment system’s touchscreens to operate. However, some telematics systems now provide smartphone integration via apps.

These apps give you access to many of the same features you used to contact the concierge on request — like unlocking the doors if you’ve lost your keys, locking the doors if you think you might have forgotten, or even blow your horn or If you’re having trouble finding your car, turn on your headlights. Others can start the engine remotely if you don’t have a key fob handy, and even adjust the climate control to the ideal temperature before you even get in the car.

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