The commercial adoption of telematics in the region is expected to overtake Europe by the end of this decade Asia is gearing up for a lead role in the drive to adopt telematics - the convergence of computing and communications systems to enhance the functionality of vehicles. Industry experts say the fast development of the automotive, information technology, communications and digital entertainment industries in China could transform Asia into a leader in the field of smart cars. When he was a young stand-up comic in the United States, Nutty Professor actor Eddie Murphy drew big laughs with a spiel about his talking car. He described how, once he got a girl inside, the car's supposedly hi-tech sensor automatically said in a smooth-sounding male voice: 'Lights are on.' The girl, of course, was impressed. More than 20 years later, the commercial adoption of telematics is no mere laughing matter in North America and Europe. In Asia except for Japan, however, telematics has remained a largely untapped market. Independent system integrators, specialist electronics firms and service providers in the region are all expected to help push the adoption of smart cars. Also gearing up to play a key role are major information technology players such as IBM and Intel, and the telematics services units of Asian carmakers such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda. 'We are seeing the global automotive industry increase the amount of electronics being used in vehicles,' Microchip Technology product marketing manager Fanie Duvenhage said. 'This has become a good growth market for the semiconductor industry.' Mr Duvenhage noted that Japan's leadership in telematics had allowed some of the basic systems - involving security, safety, navigation and entertainment - to make their way to the mainland's car market. Microchip Technology has estimated that a typical vehicle produced today contains an average of 25 to 35 microcontrollers, with some luxury cars containing more than 70. Microcontrollers serve as 'brains' of the electronic control units (ECUs) emerging throughout vehicles. ECUs enable more efficient subsystems, from engine management and battery monitoring to climate and air-quality sensor controls. New York-based ABI Research predicts that rapid economic expansion in the Asia-Pacific region, specifically in China and India, will drive commercial adoption of telematics in Asia to greater levels than in Europe by the end of this decade. 'With continuing investment and development in this region, firms will be looking to streamline their supply chains and manage their assets more efficiently, so they will naturally turn to telematics,' ABI Research analyst David Schrier said. The market segments poised for the greatest growth included long-haul trucking, public transit and taxis. 'The long-haul trucking segment is a traditional early adopter, and growth in trade and development are directly linked to increased uptake in this market,' Mr Schrier said. He said taxis represented a huge market, particularly in Beijing, as fleets geared up for the 2008 Olympics in China. IBM Labs - which has developed interactive voice systems for vehicles - is investigating telematics collaboration with a Hong Kong university and a local technology startup which aims to sell smart car systems in the mainland, according to IBM researcher Roberto Sicconi. He said the challenge for proponents of telematics was the mainstream motoring public's lack of awareness of its benefits. IBM last month landed its largest telematics contract to date - a US$125 million, four-year project to build a telematics infrastructure for the traffic system of the United Arab Emirates. Dubai-based CERT Telematics, part of the Emirates' Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training, said the project with IBM would help reduce highway accidents. IBM Engineering and Technology Services will build an infrastructure of telematics devices that will give the Emirates the ability to collect data, improve road safety and manage traffic. CERT Telematics expects to roll out tens of thousands of these devices, which will be installed in vehicles of all types. The world's leading carmakers began offering telematics as an option in the mid-1990s. Now, virtually every major carmaker in the world is analysing, designing or managing a telematics program for at least some of their models. A typical telematics program requires five distinct elements and a telematics service provider. These elements include: in-vehicle hardware to make and receive digital data, wireless communications provided by a network operator, location technology such as a satellite-based global positioning system, content like mapping data for navigation, and information such as the colour and licence plate of a car to assist in a roadside or emergency dispatch. The telematics service provider is responsible for integrating the various program elements selected by the carmaker, its dealer or the customer. The three main telematics service providers in Japan - Nissan Carwings, Toyota G-Book and Honda InterNavi Premium Club - have focused on delivering enhanced navigation and entertainment services. But so far, the mass-market appeal of telematics has been related to compressed digital music on hard-drive or flash memory-based players. The US-based Telematics Research Group (TRG) last year found that car owners worldwide have mostly been attracted by interface kits that allow portable media devices such as Apple's iPod, to be played through a car's audio system. 'We are seeing a slew of products coming in the market that integrated iPods with the audio system,' TRG principal analyst Phil Magney said. Research firm Gartner has forecast that the adoption of Bluetooth technology in telematics systems will enable connectivity between mobile phones and in-vehicle entertainment devices by 2010. By that time, every new car will have standard-feature telematics for safety, security and convenience. Microchip Technology said smarter cars could hold the key to air-pollution issues in countries such as in the mainland, where the number of cars on the road is expected to rise dramatically over the next few years. According to a recent forecast by China's State Environment Protection Administration, vehicle exhaust emissions will account for 79 per cent of total air pollution in China next year. China is expected to have about 33 million cars on the road by 2006, rising to 131 million in 2020. Chris Appleton, Asia-Pacific marketing manager of Microchip's Automotive Products Group, said: 'The advanced usage of electronics in a vehicle can aid in controlling the amount of pollution being generated.' HIGHWAY INTELLIGENCE 1. Back-seat entertainment: The kids of yesteryear had to content themselves with games of Eye Spy. Not anymore. Flat-panel displays connected to DVD players and satellite receivers will stifle those cries of 'Are we there yet?' 2. Premium audio: AM and FM are out. Howard Stern and satellite radio are in (at least in the United States and in Britain). Drive-time radio never sounded better with a multitude of listening options available at your fingertips. 3. Navigation systems: Frustated by a glove compartment full of maps that never seem to fold back properly? This might be the answer to your prayers. Navigation systems, many of which use GPS and deliver voice directions, mean you'll never get lost. 4. Portable device interfaces: You take your iPod on the MTR but what if you commute to work by car? Interfaces for digital music players are becoming a standard feature in cars today and allow easy docking of devices. 5. Telematics tracking devices: Executives visiting the mainland need not worry if their ride gets car-jacked. GPS-based telematics will hunt down your car. And once enough cars are using telematics, sophisticated software can be developed to manage traffic across a city. 6. Bluetooth: Hands-free kits using Bluetooth wireless technology allow you to chat while keeping an eye on the road and your hands on the wheel. Bluetooth can also be used to stream audio throughout a car.