Tokyo Motor Show: Telematics To Go, Anyone?
Tokyo Motor Show: Telematics To Go, Anyone?

Tokyo Motor Show: Telematics To Go, Anyone?

Tokyo Motor Show: Telematics To Go, Anyone?

Japan is the nation of early adopters for mobile, but there’s one consumer app. that went flat and is now undergoing heart massage by some of the country’s biggest and best companies: Telematics is the name, and subscribers is the game. 2004 is supposed to be the year when Japanese Telematics Ver.2 gets cranked into first gear and out of the highway rest area (it was also supposed to happen this year.. shuuush!) Japanese Telematics comes in three main flavors, and in this program you’ll get a taste of two of them. We managed to go for a ride on Toyota’s G-Book and learn more about their new sense of community offering. And we interviewed Nissan –which has great future plans you’ll get to virtually-virtually test drive– about City Browse.

Prior attempts to jump-start Telematics in Japan crashed and burned: The reason can be summed up in three letters; PDC. As it was, 2G speed limitations (9.6 kbps) in the late 90s meant drivers just couldn’t see the point. When you’ve already paid $500 for an excellent DVD Car Nabi (car navigation system, and over 10 million Japanese drivers have) with a great interface that nurses you to the ski slopes, and another $100 for an electronic toll system, what can a hands-free mobile phone connection that’s going to cost you several hundred more dollars a year offer?

Not a lot it seems. Despite new laws forbidding telephony while driving, a recent Japanese news program monitored a busy Tokyo junction in a traffic jam and noted that any number of drivers were happily or otherwise chirping away on their cellies. And don’t tell us you’re not guilty either.

But as we mentioned, 2004 is supposed to be the year when Telematics Ver.2 starts in Japan.

Nissan’s CarWings started in February this year, Toyota’s G-Book, which was supposed to have started last October along with Honda’s Internavi Premium Club, is getting its real launch now. While Honda’s version distributes traffic information, news and other contents by agnostically connecting the cellie (PDC, 2.5G and cdma) to the car-navigation systems, it’s the G-Book that is getting the potentially rave reviews.

G-Book’s 6.5-inch touchpad screen is the visual gateway with a bunch of voice-activated features. The console uses car navigation hardware jointly developed by Toyota and Matsushita, and with KDDI’s 1x-EvDO network, throughput is said to average 600kbps. While drivers have mobile phone cradles, Internet connections come via a DENSO, KDDI and Toyota-designed internal communications DCM (Digital Communications Module) unit. Toyota has formed partnerships with nearly 50 firms, including Sega and has a smorgasbord of features including games, Karaoke (?Row, Row, Row the Boat, Gently Down the STREAM! Cum’on, Kids, Cheer up!? ) e-mail, an electronic bulletin board and of course EZWeb (Drive?) Main features include updated entertainment, weather and news reports, sports, banking and finance info, dining and navigation info from Shobun-sha’s Mapple book series, RuRuBu and Walkerplus, and e-commerce through Toyota’s with most pre-set functions showing news and traffic reports.

Of course, G-Book has also got a big jump from Mitsubishi Motors, which this September said it would adopting the dash-book from 2005, along with developing its own G-Book membership system. Toyota also began providing G-Book service to Daihatsu Motor Co. Ltd. this August, and also announced an agreement with Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. in February of this year.

Having talked to Toyota, we’ll reserve judgment on whether Telematics is really going to take off in Japan in the short term. At face value the system looks cool, but Toyota told us, off camera, the they don’t expect G-Book to really zoom off until 2007.

It seems that the company, burned by its first foray into the wireless car, now seems much more cautious. In fact, for Toyota, we got the impression that G-Book, despite its features and apparent ease of use, is really a work in progress.

And of course, if anyone knows cars and the car market, it’s Toyota, which seems bent on producing a fair proportion of the best-made cars at reasonable prices in the world. Some a bit cynically point out that Toyota and its massive profits join a few other Japanese companies in propping up the perpetually sagging national economy. So if Toyota-Sama sees no market until 2007, we’ll go along with that.

More cautious music to our ears was the news that Toyota is frustrated with connectivity costs. Even the flat-rate packet charges KDDI has announced, are just too darn expensive. Figure this out; with G-Book installed for free and minimal monthly charges, drivers are still going to be reluctant to pay a monthly premium for in-car wireless communications whatever sort of value-adds the G-Book system offers, the Toyota engineer we talked to believes that KDDI needs to offer 1,000 yen packet price plans or the system is going to run out of fuel.

Nissan agrees. They are practically throwing CarWings gratis and then offering 6 months free service to Telematics users just to get them used to the system.

A few words in our viewers’ ears. While the video presentation shows Kisu-san successfully making first contact with my Darth Vader/ Imperial March ringtone (200 yen), what it doesn’t show is the many failed attempts by the diligent and friendly Kisu made before he succeeded. This was partially because the car was being rocked by some angry kids salivating at the mouths wanting to get in and (as is their right) muck around with the car. In a sense, this was a partially true test of how Nissan’s voice recognition technology stands up under “real world conditions.”

We think that Nissan will have to work further on ease of use interface, because we felt that even the equinamious Kisu san was getting frustrated. Image you are tired, stressed out, somewhat lost and have two over-tired and hungry totts trying to climb out of their restrainers in the back seat. The last thing you want is to ask a machine a dozen times to give you the Call Center. At times like these, we can see the “Oh **** this, pass me the map, dear” factor creeping in.

But for future plans, Nissan’s idea of pushing information into the car, which continually updates useful and less-so tips about where you are and what’s around you, given the right options and choices, might really transform the driving experience.

Telematics Stateside: Do Not Pass Go

We expected to hear positive plans by Toyota to hit the Telematics tarmac stateside, but got the unusually frank response that Telematics is stuck in the highway rest stop amusement arcade until the United States gets “better wireless coverage.”

The history of Telematics in the US is, if anything, more disappointing than its struggles in Japan. Despite the fact that Denso and Alpine Electronics USA supplying most CarNabi gear, both failed kick-started successful Telematics services. Ford, for example, canned its Wingcast JV with Qualcomm in summer 2002 stating lack of demand for new cellular services, and pricey gear. Clarion USA and Pioneer Electronics USA’s also tried to build navigation products but this folded after partner Cue, a paging service company, went belly up.

On the other hand, now that Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS have launched nationwide CDMA 2000 1x networks, and seem to be planning Telematics services, perhaps there are fewer wide open spaces in the cell coverage and more wide open spaces to explore with Telematics apps. Car Nabi is supposed to start taking off in the US; until now it’s been a luxury. Who knows, once one Japanese gadget hits the dashboard, others might follow, for the monied professional classes, at least. Since Toyota is in the back seat with CDMA, we won’t be surprised to hear about options emerging, but not anytime soon?.

— The Editors