Racal joins race to beat traffic jams with a satellite car-tracking device

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A new car tracking device designed to help drivers beat traffic jams and find their way home was launched yesterday. Andrew Yates reports that it could turn out to be a money spinner for Racal and European Telecom, the two companies responsible for the system.

Called Orchid, the tracking device pinpoints the location of a car anywhere in Britain to accuracy of just 5 metres using an extensive satellite system. Drivers can phone a control centre, using a specially installed on-hands car phone system to find out their exact location and pick out a route home to avoid traffic snarl ups. Users can even find out where the nearest hotel is or call for help if they breakdown.

The new system also promises to cut the number of car thefts in Britain, where there are more vehicles stolen than anywhere else in Europe.

Global Telematics (GT), a joint venture between Racal and European Telecom that invented Orchid, have teamed up with the Automobile Association (AA) to provide motorists with advice around the clock. GT has also enlisted the help of Vodafone, the UK's largest mobile phone operator, to provide it with a telephone network.

Orchid does not come cheap. It costs between pounds 699-pounds 899 plus a pounds 150 installation fee. At that price it looks out of the reach of the average motorist.

Instead GT is targeting companies that need to keep a constant eye on car fleets. Car hire groups are also likely to be interested in the new technology. These companies can put the system on their own computer and monitor the position of their cars.

However, GT hopes Orchid will eventually capture the imagination of the public. It has forged a deal with Carphone Warehouse, which will sell the product throughout its chain from next year. GT also plans to market Orchid to the AA's 9.3 million members.

Edward Belegeonne, GT's managing director, said yesterday: "There are other products on the market doing some of the things Orchid can do but this pulls together all the pieces of the jigsaw. Unlike other systems there are no screens to distract drivers."

GT predicts that Orchid will break even within 18 months and produce revenues of pounds 50m by the turn on the century.

At the moment the new system is only available in Britain and South Africa although GT plans to expand the product throughout Europe within the next few years. Eventually it hopes to produce a world-wide service.

Mr Belegeonne said GT was in talks with car manufacturers about installing the system as standard in their ranges.

The joint venture partners have put pounds 1.5m into marketing Orchid and Racal has spent more than pounds 50m developing the system.