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The Meaning of Telematics

Global Telematics (founded in 1986) uses the word "telematics" in the broad sense of combining computers and telecommunications, rather than the more recent connotation of"automotive telematics."  Computers and telecommunications to improve cars are certainly important, but not the whole story of telematics.  Read on for the complete story.

The word "telematics" historically -- since 1980 -- has meant the blending of computers and telecommunications. Thus, the Internet is an example of telematics, and earlier, the Minitel system in France [link to 2001 article in Wired magazine] is an example.

Telematics is the English language version of the French word telematique -- coined by Simon Nora and Alain Minc in the book L'informatisation de la Societe (La Documentation Francaise, 1978); translated as The Computerization of Society (MIT Press, 1980).

Howard Rheingold, in a chapter of his book The Virtual Community titled "Telematique and Messageries Roses: A Tale of Two Virtual Communities" describes telematique:

By the mid-1970s, French industries were frightened of IBM and worried about the British experiments in videotext--the (failed) experiment in selling information services to British subjects via their television screens and telephone touchpads. French intellectuals and scientists were beginning to write about the significance of the coming information age. Pressure was mounting on the government and industry to do something more than modernize an antiquated telephone system. The DGT obtained a superministerial budget in 1975 to develop a megaproject. In 1978, Simon Nora and Alain Minc submitted a decisive report, requested by the president of the French Republic, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, on "the computerization of society."

The Nora-Minc report, as it is still known, was bold in its forecasts: "A massive social computerization will take place in the future, flowing through society like electricity. . . . The debate will focus on interconnectability. . . . The breakdown of power will be determined between the people who create networks and those who control the satellites. . . ." The report concluded that the advent of cheap computers and powerful global communications media was leading to "an uncertain society, the place of uncountable decentralized conflicts, a computerized society in which values will be object of numerous rivalries stemming from uncertain causes, bringing an infinite amount of lateral communication." To continue to compete in the first rank of nations, Nora and Minc exhorted, France would have to mount a full-scale national effort in the new field they named Telematique (merging the French words Telecommunications and informatique). They didn't fail to note that "Telematique, unlike electricity, does not carry an inert current, but rather information, that is to say, power" and that "mastering the network is therefore an essential goal. This requires that its framework be conceived in the spirit of a public service."



A later U.S. viewpoint on what telematics means is covered in an essay by Dean Gillette "Combining Communications and Computing: Telematics Infrastructures" in the book, Cities and Their Vital Systems: Infrastructure Past, Present, and Future (1988) from the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

The Webopaedia defines telematics broadly, but notes that lately, "telematics" has been more and more used to mean "automotive telematics." This means the use of computers and telecommunications to enhance the functionality of motor vehicles, for example, wireless data applications in cars, trucks, and buses. There have even been attempts by some vendors to narrow the meaning of telematics to what they happen to be selling, as seen in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office filings. See, for example, serial number 75763061 at

There is a web page called Telematics Update that contains many recent news articles on automotive telematics. Global Telematics is a long time proponent of "telematics" for improving how cars and other transportation systems work.

The traditional, broader usage of telematics, however, is reflected widely on the Internet. For example, a Google search for the term "telematics" yields over seven million entries that still include a wide variety of non-automotive applications.  Google brings up about 400 unique entries under "medical telematics."


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Last modified, September 10, 2013