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IBM Driving More Middleware Into Cars

IBM is known for supplying middleware for servers, but the company is quietly and quickly building out a middleware channel for automobiles, as well.

The Armonk, N.Y.-based company has a 30-year history in software- and electronics-based support for cars, an industry also known as telematics . The company now has several new projects in the works designed to help drivers improve how they connect with information systems in their vehicles, including navigation, speech interaction and data processing.

"It's part of our overall focus for pervasive computing and using things like our car, our cell phone, and our appliances to increase interconnectivity," Eugene Cox, director of mobile solutions at IBM, told internetnews.com.

Cox said IBM is using a combination of its integration services along with global positioning satellite (GPS) tracking and other wireless communications to help Hyundai in Korea deliver real-time tracking of the vehicles. While it may seem a little Orwellian at first, Cox said the technology is actually helping drivers by alerting them to road conditions or traffic status.

IBM is also testing out its telematics systems with local insurance companies in the city of Norwich in the U.K. where customers would only pay based on how and where they drive.

"The manufacturers have been working on it for a long time and so have we. It's a value added service we think works because we are seeing a dramatic number in the vehicles embedded with this kind of technology," he said.

"We also have a program in play where the vehicle is in a state of constant diagnostic [status] and it takes readings on gas mileage, whether the air bags were deployed and almost any other predictive kinds of services we attach it to," Cox said. "We do this to let the manufacturers know more about their products."

The system is slated for eventual use in passenger cars, but is currently being tested by International Truck to see how it manages its fleet and extensions, Cox said.

"We are involved in several research projects to increase the ease of use because the dynamics of the vehicle are changing," Cox said. "There are about seven acoustic models created in your average vehicle.

Everything from whether the windshield wipers are on or off; if the car has leather or cloth seats; or if the windows are open or shut. What we are doing now is experimenting with cameras that are aimed at the driver's mouth so we can increase accuracy of driver's commands."

IBM's most public telematics relationship is with Honda and Acura, which includes voice controllers that help the driver ask for directions to favorite restaurants or some other destination. Cox said IBM is also helping power General Motor's OnStar communications service in nine different auto models right now, with at least 50 more expected in the next auto production cycle. Most of IBM's partners are keeping their names veiled, Cox said, because of the extremely competitive nature of carmakers.

"It's an interesting discussion because it feeds into the question, 'What does your computer or phone look like?'" Cox said.

The stats seem to support IBM's interest. There are currently more than 3 million telematics subscribers in North America, representing over 75 percent of the world's total subscribers, according to ABI Research. On a worldwide scale, Forrester Research expects the telematics market to grow to an estimated $20 billion by 2006.

But despite the media buzz and promise of interconnectivity, the biggest calls for telematics to date have been safety and navigation services. A report issued this past week by TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence found emergency services (34 percent), built-in navigation systems (31 percent), and satellite-based entertainment services (14 percent) are the three most-wanted telematics systems among "likely" car buyers. TechnoMetrica surveyed nearly 5,000 Americans for this study and focused on approximately 1,000 who are likely to buy an automobile within 6 months.

IBM's Cox said the company is helping satisfy that demand with its speech recognition product called ViaVoice, which allows the driver to use voice-interactive systems in everyday language.