What is telematics?

Telematics is a term that combines the words telecommunications and informatics to describe the use of communications and IT to transmit, store and receive information from devices to remote objects over a network.

In terms of its origin, telematics refers to the convergence of telecommunications and information processing. Telematics are primarily used in in the automotive industry, but other industries have developed uses for telematics as well.

Telematics is the English translation of télématique, a word coined by French authors Simon Nora and Alain Minc in their 1978 report, "L'informatisation de la Societe," which forecasted the influence technology would have on society. Given their views, telematics now includes the internet because networks running on IP facilitate the transmission of data across countless networks globally connected over multiple telecommunications network backbones.

How telematics works

The field of telematics can include telecommunications, wireless communications, electrical engineering, computer science, vehicular technologies and road transportation.

Telematics uses communications-enabled devices to store, send and receive information that can control remote objects, specifically in moving vehicles using navigation systems. The integration of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology into mobile devices and computers enables telematics to mark the location and communicate with a wide range of vehicles.

Vehicle telematics

In commercial usage, telematics is usually synonymous with vehicle telematics. The automotive industry uses telematics to describe onboard communications services and applications. Cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles use GPS receivers and telematics devices installed in each vehicle. Technologies that can support vehicle telematics include the following:

  • Fleet telematics. Fleet telematics refers to the use of telematics to manage and monitor commercial vehicle operations, locations and status. Fleet telematics systems enable the exchange of information between a central location and individual vehicles in the fleet, which can include trucks, ambulances, municipal vehicles, school buses and others.
  • GPS. GPS tracking and other wireless communications serve as the medium for transmitting information to and from a vehicle's computerized systems. This enables services such as GPS navigation, roadside assistance, remote diagnostics and fleet management. General Motors first popularized automotive telematics with its OnStar system.
  • Wireless. Wi-Fi and cellular networks -- such as 4G LTE or 5G -- could also facilitate communication between vehicles and applications or services. Faster wireless networks can enable more advanced onboard services, such as vehicle firmware updates -- a task that may have previously required a visit to a car dealership -- multiuser Wi-Fi hotspots and streaming video for passengers.

Combining telematics systems with sensors has opened up additional opportunities in the automotive industry and beyond. For example, telematics systems can enable shipping companies to analyze how much time trucks spend idle or enable car insurance companies to offer lower premiums to customers who are safe drivers. Telematics can also support other industries, such as car-sharing. Companies like Zipcar, for example, can use onboard, network-based services to enable usage-based pricing and self-service reservations.

Beyond automotive applications, other industries are developing telematics applications to enable use cases, like monitoring water and air pollution, providing medical and healthcare information, and enabling distance learning.

Telematics companies

Some third-party companies that offer customers communications and information management for their fleet vehicles brand themselves as telematics providers or as fleet management services providers. These providers often specialize in specific services for their customer bases that include GPS fleet trackers, GPS tracking software and vehicle security services.

Editor's note: This article was republished in March 2023 to improve the reader experience.

This was last updated in March 2023

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