Wireless and Cars: My Initial Experiments with Telematics

I got a new car over the holidays, and it’s equipped with telematics. My initial experiments with this functionality have been somewhat disappointing, but the promise is clearly there.

So the end-of-the-year car sales and the expiration of my previous lease converged in late December, leading to my leasing a shiny new Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. Hyundai builds great vehicles, with equally great price/performance, and they have the best warranty anywhere. And they have all of the bells and whistles that appeal to gadget freaks like me - including telematics, which is loosely defined here as linking a motor vehicle to cloud-based services. The granddaddy of telematics services is GM's OnStar, and more specialized offerings like LoJack are also available. In general, consumer telematics includes functions related to safety, diagnostics, convenience, and navigation.

In Hyundai's case, Telematics takes the form of their Blue Link system, which has several tiers of service, all of which are included for the first 90 days after delivery. The Assurance Package includes automatic collision notification, maintenance alerts (with a monthly summary), and a number of buttons to push to talk with someone. The Essentials (soon to be renamed Remote) Package includes remote door lock, unlock, engine start, stolen vehicle features, and more. The Guidance Package seems to be largely redundant with the features in Sirius XM's services, already installed in the more traditional navigation that I've also got, so I'm not sure I see the value here. Assurance is included for three years at no additional charge. The other two are free for the first 90 days, and US$99/year each after that.

One must complete a "welcome call" to finalize the use of the system. I couldn't find any information on this requirement and was only informed about this after I called to question an "Alarm Alert" delivered via e-mail:

We received the following alert from your 2014 Santa Fe Sport <VIN deleted>

Type: Alarm Alert

Date: 01/21/2014

Time: 12:34 PM CST

Location: 67 RT-135, Framingham, MA, 01702

I never did figure out what was going on here; I was in the car at the time and heard and saw nothing out of the ordinary. I also later got a nagging but non-specific alert warning on the car's display. Anyway, a quick push of the BlueLink button and five minutes of conversation cleared up the latter, which was related to the Welcome Call, but why is this undocumented, poorly-communicated transaction even necessary? And shouldn't messages like those above be a little more detailed with respect to, say, meaning?

Other issues I've noted include the following:

  • Error messages after successful transactions - I used the Blue Link iPhone apps to unlock the doors. After a few second, I heard a click and was delighted that everything worked. The e-mail received a few minutes later wasn't in sync, however:

Your request for Remote Unlock was processed and was not executed by your 2014 Santa Fe Sport <VIN deleted> on 01/04/2014 at 12:43 PM CST. Please retry your request.

A number of other operations have also similarly "failed", but lately everything has been working as it should. Still, is Blue Link reliable?

  • Latency - it can take minutes to get an acknowledgement of a command, which arrives via e-mail, and then, as is noted above, I'm not sure I can believe what's stated. Shouldn't the app report status? And what's with the CST? I'm in EST. Lazy programmer syndrome, they really don't know where the car is, or what?
  • Poor UI - In general, having to read the manual or plow through help functions isn't a good idea. Documentation should be available via the on-screen display in the car (accessible only, of course, when the transmission in in "Park"), not just printed (if at all anymore; I usually just download the .pdfs anyway), with updates over the air. To be fair, Hyundai isn't the only app provider with serious issues; apps of any form must be intuitive, and must be tested with real users, not just the computer-science graduates who build them - reporting of the vehicle's location (see next item), for example, is provisioned under the "Destination / Send to Car" icon, which is hardly intuitive. If the app isn't simple and inviting, its appeal, and consequentially sales, will be limited.
  • Incomplete functionality - Of particular interest to me is the ability to locate the vehicle, as I often forget to make note of where exactly I've parked. But this only works when the handset is within a one-mile radius of the car. How about an alarm when the car is moving but shouldn't be? And the precise location of the car at all times no matter what? I assume this functionality is crippled because Hyundai doesn't want mere mortals chasing after thieves, but, even with that, how do I notify whomever that my car is missing? It would appear I have to call the police first, and yet Hyundai knows (or, at least, could know) a lot more about what's going on than the cops will.
  • Poor quality of experience - Notification e-mails contain neither "Blue Link" nor "Hyundai", making them difficult to search for. Anybody home in the marketing department there? And some form of anti-theft capability appears to be built-in, but I could find nothing in the app about this. Again, like many apps, this one is counterintuitive and poorly documented.

Telematics got its start with vehicle manufacturers clearly interested in incremental revenue and in maintaining an ongoing relationship, based on value-add, with customers. This is, no argument here, smart business. But as incremental cost is necessarily involved here (and really, even if such were not), quality of experience remains essential. Hyundai clearly has a ways to go with their foray into telematics, and I've not yet decided if I will renew at the end of 90 days. After all, I've lived without telematics for my entire driving career, the functionality here is pretty limited, and I will not pay for either frivolous or redundant services (again, I don't see much incremental value in Blue Link's navigation features, for example) or buggy, counterintuitive implementations. So, let's see where Hyundai is at the end of March. In the meantime, the promise and potential are clearly there - the question is whether those involved can really deliver. Oh, and yes - I really like the car regardless.

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