Cars and mobile devices such as cell phones are becoming an increasingly dangerous and confounding mix.
Dangerous because consumers expect the vehicles they buy to be safe, yet they also want to make calls from their cell phones, an inherently unsafe activity.
Confounding because it is seemingly impossible for auto makers to keep up with the pace of change in consumer electronics with onboard devices.
But with the help of a somewhat unlikely supplier, Microsoft Corp., auto makers are taking some baby steps toward reconciling these contradictions.
Fiat Auto SpA is making its financial comeback largely on sales of the Grande Punto, which offers as an option “Blue & Me,” a relatively inexpensive module that allows drivers to control their Bluetooth phones with voice commands, listen to incoming text messages and manage the music stored on their MP3 players plugged into a USB port.
And, it also provides a vehicle interface that accommodates new cell phones as older ones become outdated.
The module, developed in partnership with Microsoft, was introduced at the Geneva auto show last March, and more than 20% of customers now reportedly buy the option, which costs about €200 ($250) in Europe.
Velle Kolde, product manager for Microsoft’s Windows Automotive Unit in the U.S., says dealers in Europe are reporting demand 300% higher than what they anticipated.
Microsoft is not usually thought of as a big automotive supplier, but it actually has been involved with auto makers for about 10 years, says Kolde.
“The platform has about 500 unique components, and an auto maker or supplier can take those components and assemble an operating system custom-tailored to a device of their design, and it will do exactly what they want, nothing more, nothing less,” Kolde says.
That approach is great for companies that have the time and the electrical hardware and software expertise to assemble their own operating systems from the components, design their own devices and do the integration work, but Kolde says auto makers since have been asking Microsoft to come up with a second platform that requires less in-house engineering.
That second platform, called Windows Mobile for Automotive and referred to as a gateway platform, is the basis for the Blue & Me system.
The company’s Windows Automotive software platform powers more than 60 OEM and aftermarket devices from 18 global auto makers and suppliers, and most often is found as the operating system in high-end screen-based multimedia navigation systems such as that in the Acura TL, Mercedes M-Class and BMW 7-Series, Kolde says.
“In that platform, we actually create a hardware reference design and develop the entire software stack so that it will run on that design, says Kolde. “We do all the integration and testing, so we can turn it over to the auto maker and they can give it to their supplier and say ‘build this device,’ and our software will work on it.”
That’s what Microsoft did with Fiat in Europe. The project took less than two years from inking the deal to the time Fiat started shipping cars with systems in it, Kolde says.
Fiat Group subsidiary Magneti Marelli Holding SpA is the actual supplier of the system. “They used our reference design and actually built the devices, and we provided the software and helped with integration into the vehicle,” Kolde says.
Microsoft now is pitching the technology in the U.S. at such events as the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. show in Las Vegas. No contracts have been awarded yet, but Kolde is optimistic that will change soon.
There are media reports that Ford Motor Co. will announce Blue & Me applications at the North American International Auto Show in January.
It’s easy to see why. A typical product cycle for a new vehicle is four or five years, while a cell phone’s is 12 to 18 months. Vehicles exist in the marketplace 10 to 15 years, while cell phones end up in the trash in about two years. And there still are notorious compatibility problems between cell phones and vehicle Bluetooth systems.
Microsoft’s Kolde emphasizes the new software platform is wholly compatible with a wide variety of Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, noting that Bluetooth is really only “a standard, sort, of.”
Fiat has jumped into the water wholeheartedly. In an interview last summer, Marketing Manager Antoine Burguiere at Fiat Auto France said “Blue & Me” would be added to the Fiat Croma and future Fiat Cinquecento and already was on the Alfa Romeo 159 and Brera.
– with William Diem