In Depth: Hughes Telematics plans to outdo OnStar and SYNC

Back in December, Hughes Telematics announced it would be providing technology for use in Mercedes vehicles, and they also worked out a deal with Chrysler the prior January. Hughes says its telematics system will one day be standard on all Chrysler products, and that the company hopes to expand beyond Mercedes and Chrysler, as well. "Hughes is talking to every OEM except General Motors," we were told.

To show off what's in store for future car buyers, Hughes brought a 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee to CES in Las Vegas this year packed full of its in-development technology, and we got a chance to check it out. Its system offers much of what Ford and GM can already do, but with promises of more, more, more. Kevin Link, Hughes' vice president said, "We are Ford's SYNC and OnStar plus."

So, yeah, there's nav and voice-controlled iPod integration. But there's also remote diagnostics, the ability to start your car with your mobile phone, remote emissions testing and GPS tracking. And you're right. That's a nice list of features, but where's the good stuff? That list is after the jump.

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One of the most interesting features that Hughes showed us on its Jeep,was the vehicle's wireless diagnostics. While I sat nice and warm in the Hughes conference room, a film crew was monopolizing the idling test vehicle in the parking lot.

A couple of clicks on a laptop and we were looking at statistics for that very test vehicle on the Drive Connected Web site. Data included the amount of time the car had spent idling, the fastest speed it had reached (91 mph!), the number of trips the car had taken, average fuel economy, how long before an oil change would be needed, and on and on. We could even see any fault codes that might pop up. The system also has the ability to alert owners to changes in any of this data. Want to know when your teen goes over 60 mph? You'll get a text message or email. Want to be sure your wife's car gets its oil changed when needed? You're messaged. The Jeep in the parking lot was brand new and in perfect shape, but according to its onboard electronics, the right rear tire was at only 94% of its recommended pressure. Other companies are offering similar services, but we were impressed with the comprehensive nature of the whole package.

While mobile navigation is almost as ubiquitous as air conditioning now, it's often a cumbersome device that takes more than it gives. The system Hughes has made us hopeful for the future of nav. Some newer navigation systems allow owners to send routes straight from their computer to their cars, which is very convenient and also included with Hughes system. But the company looks beyond the occasional trip and seeks to improve your daily commute. Most commuters soon learn every possible route to their jobs. If traffic is bad on one, they have another in mind they can use. Hughes' system does the work for you and, based on your favored routes and traffic reports, can suggest the best way to get there. Hop in the vehicle at 8 a.m. and your car has already looked at the traffic, checked for construction delays, and has your best route waiting for you. Low on gas? Your car will know and will be able to find the cheapest gas stations on your chosen route.

After the presentation, Hughes gave us a peek at its Jeep full of electronics. The vehicle was still under development, and I was warned that things were still a little rough. On the Jeep's dash was mounted a touchscreen, with another on the visor. Wires ran over a good bit of the console and dashboard, and a bright red RadioShack-type button was to the right of the shifter.

Just as I was warned, it wasn't pretty, but a push of the red button brought the system's voice recognition to attention. Tom Taylor, Hughes vice president for engineering development, sat in the passenger seat and demonstrated some of the features in development.

"What's the weather forecast?" Taylor asked the Jeep. Less than two seconds later, the Jeep read off the current weather conditions for Las Vegas. "What's the weather like in Atlanta?" Taylor asked again, and the conditions in Atlanta were read off. Then Taylor tried to throw the system a curve ball. "What about Chicago?" he asked. Without missing a beat, the car's voice told us of rainy skies in the Windy City.

The system is smart enough that it understood we were asking weather questions without the need for a weather reference. Taylor then asked more questions about sports scores and stock prices, and the system answered just as quickly with just as few topic references.

As impressive as all this gadgetry is, Hughes has even more in development for future updates.

Taking the kids to the beach? Rent a movie or game with your home computer and have it sent to your car's hard drive. Or get an audio book for the 'rents. Hear a song on the radio and buy it right there in the car.

Since Hughes' system is fully integrated with the electronics backbone of the vehicle, one group sure to benefit from future telematics technology will be mechanics. If a manufacturer needs to issue a recall, cars can be alerted wirelessly warning owners of the problem. If the recall is for a software upgrade, owners won't even need to bring their cars to the dealer. The software patch can be sent directly to the cars.

Taking the recall idea one step further, a manufacturer could much more easily recall only the vehicles needing recalls. For example, if Dodge needed to recall all Neons manufactured in July of 2000 with manual transmissions, the group of owners could be easily notified by their cars.

Manufacturers could also use the integrated system for research and development. Owners would need to give their permissions, of course, but a carmaker could use every car as test beds for future improvements. The data could be accessed as often and from whatever region of the country needed.

Even further in the future, Hughes sees vehicles with their technology not only receiving traffic information, but also reporting it. Again, with owners' permission, cars could report their location, speed and rate of travel to a central site. Analyzing the data would give real-time, super-accurate traffic reports. Or at least the real-time status of, for now, Chryslers and Mercedes. No, the Hughes guys didn't think that was funny.

One last super cool feature was in the glovebox. Or, wasn't in the glovebox, actually. If you've ever needed to consult your car's owner's manual, you know how some of them aren't the most user friendly. Imagine being able to ask your car questions about itself. Need to change a tire? Not only could the LCD screen show the steps needed to get the job done, but it could also show a video of the process.

Indeed, exciting stuff for the automotive gadget geeks among us.

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