Accelerating innovation: why the future of connected cars is data driven

Phil Muncaster

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In the vast, ever-expanding ecosystem of connected devices we call the Internet of Things, where does the humble car fit? Smart sensors, software and connectivity into cloud-based systems are increasingly turning our mundane “A-to-B” vehicles into giant mobile computers. But to what end? What do consumers really want from their connected cars? And where are the opportunities for manufacturers and ecosystem players?

Microsoft believes it has the answer. And its Connected Vehicle Platform, launched at CES last month, is already helping industry partners to accelerate innovation and develop differentiated in-car experiences for their customers.

Driving innovation

We might still be some way off Back to the Future-style flying cars, but the rapid pace of technological innovation is finally beginning to match ever-rising consumer expectations in the automotive industry. Gartner (Michael Ramsey and James F Hines; Master the Four Stages of Connected-Vehicle Evolution to Lead the Renaissance of the Automobile; Gartner; December 30, 2016) estimates that by 2020, 80% of all new vehicle models in mature markets will have data connectivity, and 30% of connected-vehcile models will have built-in, function-level,over-the-air (OTA) software capabilities.

Even policy-makers are on board. The UK government recently pledged £390 million in funding for the development of autonomous vehicles, while EU commissioner Gunther Oettinger has claimed he wants Europe to be a global leader in connected cars. It’s no surprise that the global market for connected car technology is forecast to reach $141 billion by 2020.

In this context, Microsoft launched its Connected Vehicle Platform – an effort designed to offer car makers and industry partners all the building blocks they need to create “custom connected driving experiences”, according to Peggy Johnson, Executive Vice-President of Business Development.

“This is not an in-car operating system or a ‘finished product’; it’s a living, agile platform that starts with the cloud as the foundation and aims to address five core scenarios that our partners have told us are key priorities: predictive maintenance, improved in-car productivity, advanced navigation, customer insights and help building autonomous driving capabilities,” she explained at its launch.

“Microsoft’s cloud will do the heavy lifting by ingesting huge volumes of sensor and usage data from connected vehicles, and then helping automakers apply that data in powerful ways … It brings Microsoft’s intelligent services from across the company right into the car, including virtual assistants, business applications, office services and productivity tools like Cortana, Dynamics, Office 365, Power BI and Skype for Business.”

Clive Longbottom, founder of analyst house Quocirca, argued that the platform should go some way to overcoming users’ frustrations with proprietary in-car technologies.

“It is now time that all car manufacturers adopted a far more open approach using a standards-based system that can embrace the driver’s other devices, and even integrate into the broader Internet of Things of home and broader open networks,” he told Microsoft News Centre. “This will be to the good of manufacturer and driver alike.”

Peggy Johnson
Peggy Johnson, Executive Vice-President of Business Development at Microsoft

The In-Car Office

Several car makers are already using the platform to develop innovative services for their customers. Many of them look to integrate the car into the user’s increasingly connected digital life. As such, personal assistant Cortana is at the heart of these efforts. Described by IT expert Tim Anderson as “a user interface to intelligent services”, it hooks the individual into office productivity tools such as Skype for Business and Office 365 to provide a seamless connection between home and work.

This fits very much with Gartner’s analysis of the connected car evolution we’re currently experiencing, which the analyst firm described in its December 2016 report:

“Connected drivers are ultimately connected customers and consumers who increasingly have a desire for consuming, creating and sharing digital content in all situations – including when being mobile in an automobile.

This convergence means that consumers want to be able to communicate with friends and family members, remain productive to their workplace, and to be entertained with the content that they also access outside of the automobile.”

Some of the car makers making this vision a reality for their customers include:

  • Daimler, which is integrating Office 365 into several models to create what it’s calling an “In Car Office” designed to integrate work calendar, to-do list and contacts, with the car’s voice and navigation systems. This means easy access via voice commands and the ability to sync driving directions to an upcoming meeting with the navigation unit.
  • Volvo will introduce Skype for Business into its 90 Series cars, for added productivity on the go. The car maker’s vision is to make its customers’ lives easier, more productive and enjoyable, and that means integration with Cortana going forward. A slick video shows the assistant remotely ordering its user a coffee from a local shop because he’s running early for a meeting.
  • BMW has partnered with Microsoft on its personal mobility assistant platform BMW Connected, which delivers in-car productivity services via Office 365 and digital assistance from Cortana – all powered by the Azure cloud.

The power of the cloud

The Azure cloud is an important piece of the puzzle for Microsoft, offering global availability via data centres in 38 regions, alongside more than 200 cloud services. It’s the foundational layer on which the Microsoft Connected Vehicle Platform is built, providing the security, compliance and privacy that partners demand. That’s why BMW chose to develop its own foundational Open Mobility Cloud on Azure.

The cloud computing platform is Microsoft’s “not-so-secret weapon in the connected car space”, IHS Markit principal analyst Egil Juliussen told the News Centre.

“Microsoft knows the auto industry better than most other major cloud-platform players and has targeted the auto industry for its Azure and related cloud-software platform expansion,” he added. “I think this is a good strategy for Microsoft and it has been successful with several major design wins such as Toyota … and Renault-Nissan.”

The French-Japanese car alliance used CES to showcase the power of Cortana to improve the in-car experience for drivers. The Microsoft platform will help it improve productivity for drivers and enable predictive maintenance by collecting usage data, as well as remote monitoring of the vehicle and advanced navigation features.

“In addition, Azure offers the flexibility and choice to build a common platform for Renault-Nissan to deploy services to both Alliance brands by supporting devices and vehicles that run on multiple operating systems, programming languages and tools,” explained Microsoft’s Johnson.

Nissan-Renault Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn claimed connected, autonomous and electric car technologies are fomenting a revolution in the industry.

“There’s going to be also a revolution for the driver, who’s going to be moving from a transportation device to a kind of mobile space where you’ll be able to do a lot of things,” he said at the show.

Another car maker looking to harness the power of Azure is Toyota, which is working with Microsoft on a Toyota Connected partnership designed to build cloud-based and data-driven services to improve the driving experience. The watch words in this endeavour are to make driving more “personal, intuitive and safe”, according to Kurt DelBene, Executive Vice-President of Corporate Strategy and Planning at Microsoft.

Kurt DelBene, Executive Vice-President of Corporate Strategy and Planning at Microsoft
Kurt DelBene, Executive Vice-President of Corporate Strategy and Planning at Microsoft

It brings Microsoft’s intelligent services from across the company right into the car, including virtual assistants, business applications, office services and productivity tools like Cortana, Dynamics, Office 365, Power BI and Skype for Business

Peggy Johnson, Executive Vice-President of Business Development

Doug Seven, Program Manager for the Connected Vehicle Platform, explained that Microsoft would build deep learning assets to train autonomous driving systems with the aim of making these models continuously more intelligent thanks to OTA updates and new data collected from cars.

“This creates a virtuous cycle of connected cars leveraging our deep learning and artificial intelligence capabilities and continuously improving by acting as data harvesters contributing to a continuous learning system,” he claimed.

The future lies with fully autonomous vehicles. “Connected vehicles and innovative technologies, such as self-driving vehicles, will lead to a new era of smart mobility that redefines transportation and automotive ownership models, and challenges established business models,” according to Gartner. Getting there will take some time – probably more than a decade. But that’s why the Microsoft platform is built with the agility to embrace ongoing tech innovation and evolution.

Because you never know what’s around the next corner.