Don’t call it “in-vehicle telematics.” The things that Toyota is doing to connect vehicles these days go far beyond the “in-vehicle” experience. So much so that I wonder whether or not the automaker is taking the connected car experience to an entirely different level.

By now we’ve all heard about Toyota Friend, the private social network that Toyota is co-developing with salesforce.com that will allow your car to send you personal messages much like if you were friends with your vehicle on a social network like Facebook. But this goes beyond simple routine maintenance “status updates” if you will, as the automaker plans to extend the services out to your friends, family, and even third-parties like the dealership to create private social networks than can be customized to the extreme.

What I thought to be pretty cool about the concept came from salesforce.com’s own blog that suggested your car could send you personal messages in instances like if your teenager took the car out for the night. I could only imagine the status updates: “I’m terrified!”

Toyota says it will initially offer Toyota Friend in Japan for its EV and plug-in hybrid vehicles due in 2012. That seems to make sense, as EV and technology seemingly go hand-in-hand. To me, it’s the perfect test audience, as I have read some reports that suggest EV drivers, on average, are considered early adopters of technology.

I must say, the Japanese automaker is certainly making a name for itself in the connected car space these days. Let’s not forget the announcement it made in early April with Microsoft for plans to build a complete global cloud platform to provide affordable telematics services to Toyota drivers around the world. Built on the Windows Azure platform, which includes Windows Azure and Microsoft SQL Azure, this will also be initially aimed at electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, starting in 2012.

It’s a race to the cloud in automotive these days. Toyota might have the pole position, but let’s not count out companies like Ford. In early April Ford announced it was working with MIT to create Wi-Fi-enabled vehicles that become ad hoc members of wireless peer-to-peer networks on the road for purposes of sharing such things as traffic information.

I think the thing that really sticks out here is the separation you have in the automotive market these days. Cleary you have leaders that are well past the days of “remote diagnostics” and onto bigger and better things.

I don’t want to say you have any winners quite yet in the race to connect drivers though—that will ultimately be decided by the drivers themselves. Do drivers want a social network for their cars? Only time will tell, but the efforts are certainly cool to watch.

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