Automotive Telematics System Basics

Test driving automotive telematics

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

Telematics relates in some way to everything from automotive insurance premiums to fleet tracking and connected cars, and to make matters even more complicated, virtually every modern OEM infotainment system includes a number of telematics features, to the point where they are sometimes even referred to as telematics systems.

The Difference Between Infotainment and Telematics

If it seems like there’s a huge, blurry, gray line between infotainment and telematics in cars, that’s because there is. In most infotainment systems, telematics ​makes up a huge part of the “info” portion of the portmanteau. This information often includes GPS navigation with external mapping and route calculations, cell-based concierge serves collision notification systems and other features that are all firmly rooted in-vehicle telematics, while the entertainment portion encompasses traditional head unit features like radio tuners and media players.

One of the original subscription-based OEM telematics systems, and also one of the most well known, is GM’s OnStar. In order to understand how telematics differs from infotainment, it’s useful to look at the evolution of OnStar, which started out as a simple button and a cellular connection to a concierge service. Drivers were able to access some of the same information you can get from modern infotainment systems, like driving directions, but all the heavy lifting was done off-site, instead of by an onboard computer.

All of the original telematics features of OnStar are still available in current model GM vehicles, although many of those vehicles now include additional features that you expect from modern infotainment systems, like touchscreen displays, media players, and on-screen GPS navigation rather than simply voice-based turn-by-turn directions with no visual component.

Driver and passenger driving across bridge in car


Nicolas Holtzmeyer / EyeEm / Getty Images 

Breaking Down Vehicle Telematics Systems

Automotive telematics hardware can be simple, like OnStar’s original button-and-speakerphone implementation, or they can include visual and touchscreen elements when combined with modern infotainment systems. In either case, the hardware typically consists of a cellular radio and/or modem, and some method to operate it, while the heavy lifting is done off-site. With that in mind, telematics hardware is often included standard or bundled together with a navigation or infotainment option, and typically includes a free trial subscription.

OEM telematics systems include a variety of features that can be grouped into four basic categories: convenience services, security and safety services, voice and internet services, and smartphone integration. Each feature involves automotive technology and telecommunications in some way; availability differs from one OEM to the next.

Telematics Convenience Features

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

Another convenience-based feature that has been around since the original OnStar system is concierge-based navigation services. In vehicles that have telematics, but lack GPS navigation, telematics can often be used to request turn by turn directions. The process may be automated, or a human operator may take the request, after which a GPS navigation system on the other end of the call will track the position of the vehicle and automatically provide turn-by-turn directions. In this same vein, concierge navigation services can often be used to locate restaurants, gas stations, and other points of interest.

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

Telematics Security and Safety Features

Getting away from convenience, security and safety are really at the heart of all vehicle telematics systems. Since telematics systems include built-in cellular radios, they essentially provide a link to the outside world even if you aren’t carrying a cellphone, which can be tremendously useful in case of an accident.

One of the central features of many telematics systems is automatic collision notification. This feature ties various vehicle systems into the telematics and automatically connects to an operator if specific conditions are met. For instance, if the airbags deploy, the telematics system may be designed to automatically connect to an operator, or even connect to a special, dedicated emergency services system.

The operator will then attempt to make contact with the occupants of the vehicle. If there is no response, or the occupants verify that an accident has occurred, the operator can contact emergency services to dispatch help. Since a severe accident may render the occupants of a vehicle unconscious or otherwise unable to reach or use their cell phones, this type of telematics service can and does save lives.

Other security and safety features are available outside of accident notification. For instance, some telematics systems have integrated theft recovery features, and they typically also provide concierge-based access to emergency services for problems and issues that wouldn’t otherwise trigger the accident notification system — like a sudden medical condition.

Voice and Internet Telematics

Since telematics systems include built-in cellular radios or modems, some of these systems allow for handsfree calling without the need for a cellular phone. For instance, vehicles equipped with OnStar allow you to make calls directly from the OnStar system without any need to pair your phone, although you have 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 dies and you really need to get in contact with someone.

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

Smartphone App Integration of Telematics Systems

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

These apps provide you with access to many of the same features you used to have to contact a concierge to request — like unlocking your doors if you lose your keys, locking your doors if you think you may have forgotten, or even honk your horn or flash your lights if you’re having trouble finding your car. Others can start the engine remotely if you don’t have your key fob handy, and even adjust the climate controls to achieve the perfect temperature before you ever get in the car.

Was this page helpful?