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Automotive telematics will rule, only if GPS keeps working

Almost a year ago, I wrote a column titled, “I Tele You What: This Technology Will Rule.”

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Almost a year ago, I wrote a column titled, “I Tele You What: This Technology Will Rule.” In it, I discussed telematics and how it’s believed vehicle telematics technology will flourish in the future, potentially creating huge opportunities for the aftermarket. (Vehicle telematics is anything to do with sending, receiving and/or storing information about a vehicle, normally via radio waves.) But there’s a potential hiccup in the underlying technology that may drive much of the tech revolution that some believe will be a boon to the aftermarket.

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One very important part of telematics has been and will continue to be GPS or the Global Positioning System. It’s a group of 24 satellites that orbit 12,000 miles above earth and allows GPS users to pinpoint where they are, or for a vehicle to tell where it is in relation to other vehicles, among other things. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is in charge of making sure the system works.

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) claims GPS will begin failing next year unless some repairs, upgrades and more satellites are sent into space. The Department of Defense says the GAO’s report is bunk and that it has a plan in place to ensure there are plenty of good satellites overhead to allow GPS to work. In fact, the DoD points out there are plenty of spare satellites to make sure nothing goes awry with GPS.

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There’s a whole range of civilian applications for GPS, from finding your way to a family picnic, tracking an ATM that “walks off” in the back of a thief’s truck to, in the future, vehicles telling other vehicles that there’s a traffic jam up ahead. All of this is fantastic stuff, when it works.

In my household, there are three devices with GPS — my phone, my wife’s phone and a GPS unit in my car. But even with all three of these devices in the car on two recent weekends, we couldn’t find where we were going. It took nearly 10 tries between the different devices to actually find the destination we needed to get to. I’ve never had much of a problem with GPS before, but on these two weekends, it just didn’t work. On the most recent trip, GPS put us smack in the middle of a parking lot more than three miles from our destination. My GPS unit said my cousin’s house was literally three parking spaces from a light pole outside a western Pennsylvania mall.

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The weekend before, it told me to drive through a building. Hiccups like this have been known to occur with GPS before. While getting bad satellite guidance on a family trip isn’t inherently dangerous, in the future, if we rely on vehicles to alert each other through GPS that there’s a nasty traffic crash up ahead, these little satellite snafus might not be so trivial.

If GPS and telematics are poised to be a potential panacea for the automotive aftermarket, we need to understand some of the technology behind it is reliant on entities other than the aftermarket to make sure it works.

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