Cars for the M Generation

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2003


Toyota's G-Book steers online autos to the masses.

by Gail Nakata












Telematics technology is designed to give drivers remote access to data over a wireless network. Usually, this technology is centered on the car navigation system and the driver's cellphone. But the racy little WiLL CYPHA has changed all that, making Internet technology standard equipment. "This is the first vehicle to enter the realm of complete connectivity as a mass-production vehicle," says Paul Nolasco, assistant manager of Toyota Motor's International Communications Department.

The CYPHA is a product of the WiLL cross-industry project that brings together Toyota, Matsushita and several other heavy hitters to make and market everything from white chocolate to high tech gadgets under the WiLL brand. The car is cute, with a little 1.3 liter engine to match, but it isn't exactly going to bowl over car lovers. What makes the CYPHA stand out is that each one has the new G-Book Internet terminal, jointly developed by Toyota and Matsushita Electric Industrial, built right into the dashboard.

Internet connections come via an internal communications unit called the DCM (Digital Communications Module). Developed by Toyota, Denso and KDDI, and manufactured by Denso, the DCM is basically a phone built into the car with reception and transmission capabilities. "One of the big differences between the G-Book and other telematics systems," points out Nolasco, "is that you don't need your cellular phone to benefit from the system."

G-Book provides its own real-time independent Internet and phone connection fielded through NTT's nationwide network. Users pay a one-year JPY6,600 subscription that covers all transmission costs no matter how long they stay online. Toyota kicked off the G-Book technology project in January 2000 and previewed a concept vehicle at last year's Tokyo Motor Show. WiLL CYPHA went on sale at Toyota Vista and Corolla dealers at the end of October with target sales of 1,500 vehicles a month.

To date, telematics has come to drivers mostly through car navigation systems, and the technology has focused on safety and security. Current units from a wide range of makers can track a car if it's stolen, provide detailed street maps and/or directions via voice activation software and arrange for roadside assistance in case of a breakdown. But Japan's Generation M -- that's "M" for "Mobile," as in phone -- expects a lot more from its electronic motoring companion than just maps and tow trucks. WiLL CYPHA is mainly aimed at this Generation M -- Japanese people in their 20s and 30s who crave online content, including music, news, email, daily horoscopes, weather updates, shopping, karaoke and traffic info.

G-Book offers what Toyota calls "Live Navigation" features that include subscription and fee-based services from a number of content providers. Updated entertainment, dining and navigation info can be accessed from online versions of well-known Japanese publications like Shobun-sha's Mapple book series, RuRuBu and Walkerplus. The e-commerce connection comes through Toyota's popular online mall, gazoo.com. There are alliances with providers of weather and news reports, sports, banking and finance info, even astrology sites. A number of functions can be preset to automatically bring up news, traffic reports or whatever when drivers turn on the system. A 6.5-inch touchpad screen provides good visibility for the contents, but many features are voice-activated to ensure that the driver is not distracted.

Users can also call the G-Book call center directly to request any of the online services. Operators at the call center will then download information directly onto the driver's G-Book.

Toyota envisions the G-Book as part of a seamless information connection. The key technology for that right now is the Panasonic SD (Secure Digital) memory disk. The 256-MB SD card can be formatted at the G-Book Web site (g-book.com) so that it will also run on PCs, PDAs running Microsoft's Pocket PC or Pocket PC2002 operating systems (the PDA can be formatted to mimic the screen on the on-board terminal), and SD-chip enabled cellphones. "What's the point of having a great product if, when you leave the car, you have to leave all the data behind," says Nolasco. SD disks are designed to slip into the E-Tower kiosks at convenience store chains Family Mart, 3-F, Sunkus and other venues to download music, karaoke songs or maps.



Safety and security remain integral elements of G-Book: 24/7 roadside assistance has been tweaked, so even if drivers don't know where they are, the G-Book call center can zoom in on the car's signal as long as the battery is not dead, the car isn't parked in a tunnel or too far underground, and the G-Book is switched on.

Toyota's G-Book is full of whiz-bang features, yet it is still constrained by some proprietary elements. Outgoing mail from G-Book needs to be sent through its own server (accounts on Yahoo or Hotmail, for example, will not open). Incoming mail, however, is barrier free. "Although the expanding contents of G-Book can in no way be compared to the offerings of the entire Web, they are somewhat geared to the needs of our expected customers," Nolasco says. Surfing is limited to the system's basic and pay contents, which means it's still not possible to hook up to the World Wide Web. Something else that needs rethinking is the built-in tracking system: The G-Book aids police in locating a stolen vehicle, for example, but only if it remains switched on. That means the cops can catch stupid thieves but not smart ones.

Toyota was first at the finish line for a mass-produced Net unit in a car, but G-Book is just part of the evolution of telematics and online (and on-road) entertainment. During the fall, Omron announced an alliance with Tokyo-based Mobilecast to create a data center for an open telematics portal and develop an in-vehicle server. At press time, Honda and Nissan are reportedly on the verge of releasing their own built-in Net autos as well, though details are sketchy on contents and access. Toyota is already looking beyond the WiLL CYPHA project with plans to integrate the G-Book into its own branded vehicles sometime in mid 2003. There are hints that those G-Books may take a form different from the version we see now. "For the G-Book terminal in the WiLL CYPHA, we judged the SD card to be an appropriate medium in terms of size, design and ability to protect copyrighted material," says Toyota's Nolasco. In the future, however, Toyota plans to consider use of a broad range of media, including Sony's Memory Stick.

CYPHA drivers will be providing Toyota and its partners invaluable data over the next few months on what sort of online content they want on the road. What that data will probably show is that drivers -- like mobile phone users -- want more than proprietary access and official contents; they want it all. @

Gail Nakada is a Tokyo-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to J@pan Inc.

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