Building the intelligent car of the future

REDMOND, Wash. — May 7, 2013 — In the 1920’s, carmakers started offering an accessory that would revolutionize the driving experience: the radio. While tooling down the road you could tune into the nightly newscast, a live jazz performance or the seventh game in the series. It provided a connected experience that replaced the steady drone of the four liter under the hood with the soaring notes of Duke Ellington’s bugle or the crack of Babe Ruth’s bat as the ball hurtled toward the right-field stands.

Since then, the notion of the connected car has changed. Features such as streaming music from your smartphone and using voice commands to control the stereo and environment are standard equipment in many models. And Microsoft has a vision for in-car technology that takes us beyond the confines of the cockpit to what they call the intelligent car — a scenario in which telematics data can help improve the driving experience, and the design of the vehicle.

Led by Group Program Manager Pranish Kumar, the Windows Embedded Automotive team is focused on fulfilling this vision and, in the process, developing an upgradeable technology solution that extends the useful life of the vehicle.

Says Kumar: “The automotive industry faces a lot of unique challenges, perhaps first of which is that cars must be supportable for much longer than consumer electronics devices — 10 or 20 years, in most cases. I think we’ve developed a solid understanding of some of these challenges and how technology can address them, while providing drivers with a better experience.”

A relationship built on experience and trust

Microsoft’s involvement in the automotive industry stretches back 15 years to 1998 when the company partnered with Clarion to announce the Auto PC, a first-of-its-kind solution that gave drivers access to email, driving directions, paging and traffic alerts, and their entertainment system. And in 2003 Microsoft developed the Microsoft TBox, a telematics device that went on to power infotainment systems for a variety of carmakers.

When it came to working directly with carmakers, Kumar says it was an uphill battle to gain their trust. Many had tried to design their own infotainment system and were convinced that it couldn’t be done in a shorter time than seven or eight years. Microsoft has since proven itself by reducing development time down to just two to three years.

Kumar’s team also adopted the same level of rigor and many of the testing methodologies that carmakers use when conducting customer road tests. Making this change gave the team a “greater degree of confidence” that their development and reporting processes met the carmaker’s need and that the finished product would meet or exceed the driver’s expectations.

From the connected car to the intelligent car

For carmakers, the Promised Land lies in giving drivers the ability to access information and services anywhere they live, whether an app on their smartphones, a music file on their tablet at home, or customer contact information on their computer at work or in the cloud. Over time, members of the Windows Embedded Automotive team have earned a reputation for providing solid insight to help make these experiences a reality.

Together with Kumar, Creative Director John Hendricks, Principal Program Manager Jay Loney, Partner Development Manager David Kelley, and Experience Designers David Walker and Melissa Quintanilha are part of a larger team developing and designing the future of Microsoft’s automotive technologies.

In doing so, they are moving away from a focus on creating in-dash technologies, such as the entertainment or navigation systems, to an emphasis on creating a solution that would power these technologies as part of an overall user experience. Taking this approach has given carmakers the ability to provide periodic updates that refresh the driving experience and extend compatibility to the latest consumer devices.

In the future Microsoft wants to take that experience a step further. Whereas today consumers demand a car that’s more connected — to their phones, their music and their services — Windows Embedded Automotive is focused on designing intelligent cars that respond to the driver’s needs.

One example that Kumar cites involves the difficulty of pairing new phones, which is one of the most frequent problems facing car owners. According to IDC, 722 million smartphones were shipped globally in 2012, a 46.1 percent increase over the previous year.[1] As demand for smartphones continues, ensuring compatibility between new models and infotainment systems will remain a challenge.

A Windows Embedded-based system could transmit data about the unsuccessful pairing to Microsoft and overnight a solution could be identified and downloaded to the car. When the owner gets in his car the next morning, his phone would automatically pair. Over time, that same data could be used to design a user experience that’s not only easier to use but that performs tasks on your behalf, such as tuning to your favorite station or rescheduling a meeting due to traffic delays.

Drivers also stand to gain from the availability of data. Many vehicles contain sensors that monitor factors such as speed, braking, fuel consumption, tire pressure and environmental conditions. Drivers can already use this information to assess their performance and get recommendations on how to improve fuel efficiency or vehicle maintenance.

Using the same data, carmakers could augment the existing battery of tests that are part of their proving process. So in addition to putting a vehicle through the environmental extremes of Northern Sweden or California’s Death Valley, they could evaluate its performance in day-to-day conditions. Engineers and product planners could get a head start on the next year’s model through insights around where design improvements are needed or where a car has been over-engineered. They could even fine tune an engine over-the-air to improve fuel economy of the current model year.

Kumar believes that many of the systems are already in place to make this vision a reality. Using technologies such as Windows Update, cars could be automatically updated — in much the same way as smartphones automatically update when you activate them. And the combination of big data and machine learning could lead to cars that develop an understanding of your preferences and driving behavior to become more responsive to your needs.

“We’ve come a long way in terms of creating a product that works reliably and meets the quality standards of the automotive industry. And we’re continuing our work with carmakers to reach the full potential of in-car technology,” says Kumar. “Through a combination of software, hardware and user-centric design, we believe that car owners will experience driving like never before possible.”

[1] IDC Worldwide Mobile Phone Tracker, Jan. 24, 2013