Cars and mobile devices such as cell phones are becoming an increasingly dangerous and confounding mix.
Dangerous be-cause 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 on-board devices.
But with the help of a somewhat unlikely supplier, Microsoft Corp., auto makers are taking some baby steps toward reconciling these contradictions.
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And, it also provides a vehicle interface that accommodates new cell phones as older ones become outdated.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 in March, and more than 20% of customers now buy the option, says Jurgen Za, director of the automotive business unit for Microsoft in Germany.
In some countries, 90% of car buyers choose the option, he says. In France, where Blue & Me costs E200 ($250), penetration has hit 6% since March.
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 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 and7-Series, Kolde says.
“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.
“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 within 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 signed yet in North America, but Kolde is optimistic that will change soon.
According to media reports,Motor Co. will announce U.S. applications for Blue & Me at the North American International Auto Show in January.
It's easy to see the appeal. 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.
Auto makers basically are boxed in by consumer preferences, says Peter Kohlschmidt, Audi AG director-technical development for connectivity and telephony, at a recent presentation in Paris on consumer electronics in cars.
“Mobile devices in a car are a nightmare,” he says. “Every generation of telephones changes, and there are only a few interface standards, like USB ports and power plugs.”
Nonetheless, Kohlschmidt says, “nomadic devices have become part of daily life.”
Atof Europe, “the customer is bringing their navigation system into the car, and we have to figure out how to interface with them,” says Detlef Kuck, team leader for telematics and navigation research.
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.
Fiat chose to ignore the fact the USB connection port is “not automotive certified,” or up to normal automotive standards of electric connectivity, Microsoft's Za says, adding, “OK, it's true. But Fiat was open for this suggestion.”
“The main value of a gateway platform (such as Blue & Me) is the ability to securely update it, with new codes, a new Bluetooth profile,” Microsoft's Za says. “Now you can install an SMS (short text message system) reader. The car will say, ‘You have an SMS; shall I read it to you?’”
Information overload is the cause of accidents related to using a telephone while driving, whether hands-free or not, and auto makers are aware nomadic devices add to the information clutter.
However, they argue, having a hands-free device talking to you or showing the way is better than holding a phone to your ear or trying to read a map while behind the wheel.
“Consumers are not reasonable,” says Gerulf Kinkelin, director-research and innovation for electronics and telematics atPeugeot Citroen.
“They should not be telephoning. But if they are, it's better that their hands are on the wheel. People will phone anyway.”