Microsoft’s connected car platform delivers a mobile datacenter to your driveway
The connected car revolution isn’t coming — it's here. Going to a meeting, and have a conference call on the way? Your ride’s digital assistant will help you plan a route blessedly free of tunnels and drops in connectivity that could interfere. And while you drive, the car will help you stay in your lane.
Leading this effort on the engineering front at Microsoft is Tara Prakriya, General Manager for Azure IoT Mobility and Connected Vehicles. This team of dozens is working with the two largest industry players, Volkswagen Group and Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, to create cars featuring unprecedented levels of interactivity.
"What our connected vehicle platform gives our clients is truly a digital chassis to achieve scale and efficiency in developing and delivering value to their customers," Prakriya said. "Our customers are navigating a digital transformation of the industry and this digital chassis helps them absorb and fully take advantage of the new opportunities available in the market in a global way, including China.
"What our customers look for in the partnership from Microsoft is not just a technology vendor, but a strategic partnership to help the full digital transformation, cultural transformation and market transformation that need to work in lock step. It's a tall order, which is why we work with our customers to figure out what this is going to look like."
Our connected vehicle platform gives our clients a digital chassis to achieve scale and efficiency in developing and delivering value to their customers.
"Pretty much everybody that's on the team is really excited about this space," said Larry Sullivan, co-head of the team with Prakriya and a veteran Microsoft engineer. "I think Tara brings a lot of that energy and the team gives that energy back as well. We're not a huge team, but we're really motivated, and we're really fired up about helping our customers do business in a really positive way."
Microsoft’s automotive initiatives engage such corporate partners as TomTom, Cubic Telecom, Moovit, DSA and Faurecia. They also leverage Microsoft's work on the Internet of Things (IoT) and the company's Azure cloud computing service. Prakriya believes it's helpful to think of IoT as the information of things.
"The digital feedback loop is the term that we use at Microsoft," Prakriya said. "IoT in many ways represents the digital feedback loop of physical things, physical spaces, physical environment and what products actually do in the marketplace. There are lots of decisions that our business customers need to make that IoT information can make a significant contribution to.
"And, once those decisions are made, there is new information, and that needs to be communicated as a feedback loop back to those physical environments, physical products, physical consumers and physical employees. The opportunity in connected vehicles, and mobility as a whole, is to be on the edge of getting the data so that we can do amazing things and then deliver it back to the edge again. What then connects the stationary things, like smart buildings, with smart transportation and mobility is Azure Maps."
A car, Prakriya said, has plenty in common with other consumer electronics products: "You want experiences to become easy. You want the cars and the system to anticipate what your needs are. There is a lot of ease of use and delight that can be had for the consumers — both the drivers and the passengers. The cool challenge with delivering a connected vehicle platform is simplifying the complexities of what is really a mobile datacenter on wheels so that these experiences are easier to create, deploy and refine. Having a single connected vehicle and maps platform that underpins consumer experiences in the vehicle and on their phones, providing driving assistance and mobility as a service, goes a long way towards this goal."
Microsoft's work in the automotive space is about helping each customer create a differentiated set of integrated services while taking advantage of a consistent, robust, flexible, global and secure digital chassis for scale. "They have different brand promises to their consumers," Prakriya said, "and so as a result, the features that they are really thinking about and the digital value that they are trying to deliver to their customers are different. We are taking care of the boring stuff so that they can really think about what their brand promise is and deliver it."
She points out that automakers are making these promises and creating these systems in the face of not one, not two, but four simultaneous upheavals in the industry. The first is basic digital connectivity, followed closely by the use of artificial intelligence — for example, in fighting driver distraction, among other applications. Then there are shared-vehicle services, and the gradual electrification of cars and trucks as manufacturers move away from fossil fuels, which will have impacts across the supply chain and all through the vehicle life cycle.
"It is an enormous amount of change that we know our customers are thinking about constantly," Prakriya said, "so this is a lot of the reason why we created the set of platforms for IoT Mobility. We are very engaged with our customers because it's so exciting to watch them navigate this. And if we can play any part in that navigation, it's pretty wonderful."
To further complicate matters, all of the team's major customers are also working on driverless vehicles. "Azure’s storage and compute teams, along with the AI teams, and the devops teams, together have an excellent story for building your own autonomous driving models," she said. "Azure has a pretty great end-to-end template and methodology that helps customers, from getting their big data onto Azure all the way through to working with ecosystem partners to be on Azure for things like simulation as well as collecting data from production vehicles to assist in validation.
"We work with a number of large customers on building their own autonomous driving models on Azure. Fully autonomous vehicles are, of course, more than just a technical problem. There are legal and regulatory considerations. In the meantime, assisted driving models are rapidly improving, and we are excited to work with our customers to deploy these models to vehicles using our connected vehicle platform and create a digital feedback loop."
“Today, this data informs cutting-edge driver-assisted features like automatic braking, advanced cruise control and lane assist. Tomorrow, the information will be the backbone of autonomy. The leader in that space, bar none, is Microsoft,” wrote analyst Jon Markman in a recent Forbes article.
There is also an increasing focus on Azure Maps to keep up with the demands of multi-modal routing, HD Maps and fresh updates that connect ride share partners with map making partners. In addition, Azure Maps is an important pillar in geo-spatial analytics to help create new value for customers.
Prakriya "really understands the tech and the business and how those things come together," co-head of the team, Sullivan said. "She is fantastic as a counterpart.”
Both Prakriya and Sullivan say they consider themselves "two in a box" as managers — even though he's Texan and she's not, he's kind of a car guy and she drives a non-connected minivan that's the same age as her 14-year-old son. They're both fast talkers who laugh easily.
"We have a great time," Sullivan said. "We have a lot of fun. This is an exciting industry. It's really going through a bunch of changes and we feel well positioned to help, but like anything, it's got a degree of insanity, and we have a lot of fun with just, 'All right, what's the craziness of the day?'"
Yet Prakriya's scientific approach — she holds nine patents — persists even after she leaves the office. It extends to life with her son and husband, who works in the Microsoft Business and Applications Group.
"I am a crock pot maven," she said. "There is almost nothing I cannot cook in a crock pot. It is the only way our family survives. A lot of Indian cooking works really well in the crock pot, baking as well — it is amazingly easy to bake in a crock pot.
Microsoft's work in the automotive space is about helping each corporate customer create a differentiated set of services.
"I joke that my aim is to bend the space-time continuum of figuring out how we eat as a family, and with the slow cooker, we have the option of stretching out the interval between when I cook and when the meal needs to be ready. I also like the whole end-to-end supply chain of food. It's also about optimizing the shopping list, strategic use of the freezer, and considering the whole process all the way down to the dishes. It's kind of fun."
Both at home and at work, she pursues a hobby: knitting. She's a contributor to Knit-A-Square, a South African charity that collects knitted squares and assembles them into blankets for vulnerable and orphaned children, many of whom are affected by HIV/AIDS. She said that knitting is the perfect accompaniment to a conference call.
"We do a lot of them because our customers are in Europe," she said, "and they are kind of all in different places, right? Knitting keeps me away from the keyboard because it's easy to get distracted. It is a way to keep my fingers active so I can focus."
And for Prakriya, Sullivan and the team, focus is key — because there's always another question to answer from another angle.
"Just connecting things does not solve the big challenges," Prakriya said. "There is definitely a lot of work to do. We are trying to provide the platforms to make that work easier. We have great support from our management chain. We are aligned all the way up and down with our wickedly smart compatriots in business development — shout out to [Executive Vice President of Business Development] Peggy Johnson’s team — as well as marketing, teams in the field, as well as PR. And our close relationship with our partners and customers makes the work exciting and fun.
"What Larry and I and the extended IoT Mobility team are doing is a shining example of everything about the fantastic Microsoft culture at work. It's about solving the right problems the right way, in an aligned manner, so that the best people who understand the problem from different dimensions can come together and achieve something really great, and help our customers achieve something that is frankly even greater."Originally published on 9/12/2019 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft