You may not have heard of Hughes Telematics before, but this offshoot of the great Hughes empire provides the tech that, amongst other things, powers Mercedes' latest mbrace technology, Benz's response to OnStar. But that's not all they do; the company is working on its own advanced infotainment system for the car, and also showed off a system informally called "OnStar in a box" – an easy-to-install device that will let you track exactly where your car is at any time, how fast it was going, and even what kind of mileage it was getting at the time. Somewhat more troubling, it also could allow others access to the same information, people like your insurance company. Good stuff, or Big Brother with an OBDII connection? Read on to find out.
While Mercedes Benz offers different in-car assistance programs in Europe, in America it partnered with Hughes Telematics to develop mbrace, which we took at look at not too long ago. At CES Hughes was showing off what looks like could become the next-generation of mbrace, a touchscreen and voice interface currently called Next Gen Telematics. Right now the tech is still in its infancy, with a very simple interface and a USB Griffin PowerMate as a controller. But, the potential is there, showing off the ability to pull in media from external sources, read RSS feeds, and stream Slacker internet radio, much like Visteon's next-gen offerings.
Also on display was the company's AT-300 and AT-500 devices, the ones that let you add an OnStar- or mbrace-like experience to any car with an OBDII port (just about anything produced after 1996). Both simply connect to OBDII, getting their power from there, then can be mounted on the dash. The AT-500 has two buttons, one for calling for assistance and one for calling for emergencies, both of which can be programmed to call whatever numbers you like. When pressed, it acts like a speakerphone, and while it can't tell when an airbag was deployed, it does have the ability to guess in many cases when an accident has occurred based on rapid deceleration, meaning you're still likely to get automatic help.
More interesting, though, is what both devices do when just sitting there innocuously. They track the vehicle via GPS, uploading that information via cellular antenna. That data is stored on Hughes' systems and can be accessed through a web interface showing exactly how much ground the car covered, where it went, how long it took to get there and, of course, how fast it was going along the way. That the device is generally intended to be sold in large quantities to insurance companies, who might then turn around and offer them for free or cheap to customers, inspires thoughts of a distinctly Orwellian future.
But, don't get too paranoid yet. Even if insurance companies do start handing these out to customers, it would surely be an opt-in sort of program (at least at first), with discounts offered to those who choose to participate. This could be particularly appealing to those with car insurance premiums that went through the roof as their kids got behind the wheel, both thanks to what would surely be some sort of a discount incentive, and also thanks to the ability for those parents to track their kids' driving habits.
What about the rest of us? Well, the device has a little less appeal if you're the sort who tends to explore the other end of the speed limit when you're driving, but it does have its place on the road. Again, these devices are intended for sale to driving clubs (like AAA) and insurers, who will probably pay around $150 for the things then provide them to members and, while it's easy to get red in the face thinking about some operator in a call center making decisions about how good a driver you are based on how fast a blip is moving across their monitor, it's hard to envision a future in which we won't all be under the watchful eye of some omniscient authority or another. Thank goodness it's opt-in for now.