Fiat Auto and Microsoft have joined forces to develop a modular entry-level telematics system – claimed to be the first standardized end-to-end solution that is affordable for everyone.
As we entered the new millennium in 2000, telematics was one of the main topics in automotive electronics. Despite the early promises, telematics systems are still mostly found in luxury cars, because the high cost attracts only a small fraction of buyers. However, telematics continues to hold great promise for carmakers in the future – if the price and business model are right.
Innovation with “Convergence”
This belief led Fiat Auto to the development of an entry-level telematics concept code-named “Convergence”. Says Giorgio Audisio, senior manager of Fiat Auto and the creator of the Convergence project: “Our initial idea was to put a brain in the car, that holds some information – for example, about the production process. This should be extended with more information during the lifetime of the vehicle and be capable of transmitting data whenever requested.” To reach these goals, the engineers of Fiat Auto came up with a design to provide each car with its own memory, in which important information belonging to a specific vehicle could be saved. Aside from diagnostic purposes, the memory could record data such as the definition of the sales contract by the dealer, the colour and other options chosen by the customer or transportation provisions. For process improvement, the range of stored information can span across the whole lifetime of the vehicle, from the production phase to the delivery to the customer and beyond.
Very quickly, the Convergence project of the Fiat Auto research lab evolved to a broader concept: to have a centralized way of storing car-specific data internally and transmit it whenever requested. This idea laid the foundation for a telematics platform to be used as a method to improve all manufacturing and service processes and providing customers with many benefits.
Convenience and end-to-end services
“So at the first level, the basis was to provide a comfortable, easy-to-use hands-free kit to a large number of customers,” says Audisio. “This was a very big request from the market. Although it was not really telematics, it was the basis for a telematic device.” The Italian specialists selected Bluetooth for a wire-free system. By doing so, the customer not only gets a hands-free-kit for this mobile phone, but also can very easily combine his own favourite device with the vehicle. “We thought this approach of adding new functions would increase the level of interest for telematics,” explains Audisio. Using a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone, drivers can enjoy MP3 or WMA audio files stored on a tiny USB stick or a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) – played back via the car audio system and hands-free – are just a few of the functions the Convergence project will enable. Bluetooth is not only a very mature standard, but also very inexpensive to implement and already included in many mobile devices, particularly in Europe.
In addition, Fiat wanted a platform capable of using services after the vehicle leaves the manufacturing plant. The engineers extended the Convergence concept to include the possibility to provide more information during the lifetime of the vehicle, through additional services like the ones offered by bConnect. “With bConnect, Fiat Auto has its own service-providing company that has been operating successfully for quite a long time already throughout the European countries and has complete call-centre capabilities,” he says. To give the customer a high-quality experience and to increase the business level of Fiat Auto’s service providing company, bConnect should seamlessly integrate into the Convergence project.
Standardisation is the key
In order to keep costs down, researchers at the Italian carmaker examined the telematics market for a standard platform – appropriate for an easy, cost-effective mass production. “In order to decrease the costs, our main goal was to follow a standard. This was a key element for the development of our Convergence concept, because standardization equals lower costs,” says Audisio.
However, even the biggest automotive silicon and electronics suppliers did not have a suitable standard platform available for Fiat Auto. “Either their price was too high, or the device could not be used directly” explains Audisio. “Instead, it would have taken a long-lasting development cycle increasing the time-to-market for several years, but we at Fiat Auto wanted to sell devices based on our innovative Convergence telematics platform without this massive delay,” he adds.
During its examination of the telematics market, Fiat Auto spoke with Microsoft as well. Since 1995, Microsoft has had its own division dedicated to automotive solutions: the Automotive Business Unit (ABU). The more than 130 members of Microsoft’s ABU team are working closely with the automotive industry to provide software for vehicles that combine information, entertainment, communication, and services. By the end of 2003, more than 23 car models from twelve carmakers in Europe, Asia and North America were equipped with in-car-computing devices based on the automotive technologies from Microsoft. Several OEMs and after-market suppliers use the Microsoft Windows Automotive platform in their solutions.
Collaboration with joint development
When in the summer of 2002 the experts of Fiat Auto described to the Microsoft team under Jürgen Za what they were looking for, they found that the automotive specialists at the software company were experimenting with an early prototype of an entry-level telematics hardware box − code-named “T-Box” − designed for the Windows Automotive platform. “When we saw Microsoft’s T-Box project, I quickly realized that this was very close to the C2 level of our Convergence project,” Audisio remembers. By using standards like the CAN bus, Bluetooth and Web services, the intention of Microsoft was to create a standardised solution that could easily be integrated into a variety of vehicles, devices and services – and therefore could be developed with a short time-to-market and produced by a Tier-One supplier for a fraction of traditional telematics solutions’ pricing. Fiat Auto and Microsoft were both trying to achieve the same objectives, each from a different perspective. After various meetings, the researchers of both companies matched their objectives of the Convergence and the T-Box projects and successfully did a proof-of-concept.
Fiat Auto would bring in the experience of vehicle development for more than a century, and Microsoft had an intensive understanding and knowledge of software development not only in general, but of the automotive industry in particular. The further development of the Convergence project of Fiat Auto and the T-Box from Microsoft became a joint project. The collaboration of their partnership had an ambitious goal: to create the first standardized, cost-effective, entry-level, end-to-end telematics solution, says Audisio
Telematics in multiple flavours
To give the customer a flexible choice the level of telematics they want in their cars and how much money to spend on it, Fiat Auto and Microsoft decided against a single system. Instead, both parties worked on a modular design that comes in different variants and gives maximum flexibility in terms of benefits and price. The modularization of the Windows Automotive embedded platform together with the Connected Car technology from Microsoft made it possible: Only the desired components are used and all unneeded functionality is left out.
This allows offering multiple telematics solutions, starting on a very basic level and ranging to a higher-equipped unit with more features – depending on the type of customer and the planned usage (main car for his or her, second car for the family, first car for the adult child, rental car, utility vehicle etc). “Another appealing factor of this approach is the possibility of retrofitting: if the customer likes to have more telematics functions, the solution is prepared to grow step-by-step along with the demands,” says Audisio.
Fiat Auto and Microsoft determined three modular Convergence levels: “C1” can be characterised as multi-function telematics infotainment device that combines the capabilities of playing music, a Bluetooth hands-free kit and telediagnosis and supports advanced speech-recognition as well as text-to-speech. “C2” is designed for off-board navigation purposes, with small pictograms in the multi-function display of the instrument panel showing the route to destination. “C3” opens up possibilities for additional services such as advanced theft protection. Each of the Convergence levels includes the functionalities of the previous versions and makes use of the instrument panel already inside each car – thereby avoiding a cost-intensive additional display. For safety reasons, all levels utilise voice-control technology, available in many different languages. “Our speech-recognition is a special feature. It needs no training, because it is voice independent and therefore works for different users of the vehicle. By using a very powerful speech engine, it will be one of the best of the world in terms of the capabilities to manage voice,” Audisio emphasizes.
Regarding the hardware side of the joint development, Microsoft defined a standard hardware reference design. A Tier One supplier will produce the telematics units based on these specifications. During the car manufacturing process, the units will be delivered to the production plants of Fiat Auto and assembled in the vehicles like other control units.
Available next year at a dealer near you
Currently, this project of the Fiat Auto and Microsoft partnership is reaching the finishing line. Thus, getting a car with the new telematics architecture from Fiat Auto and Microsoft is neither science fiction nor a matter of years: Beginning in 2006, all new models the Italian carmaker will launch will be “Convergence-ready”. Drivers of the smallest car from Fiat Auto will be able to enjoy the new telematics age. “Hence, even drivers of a Fiat Panda or Fiat Punto can benefit from our innovative telematics approach,” says Audisio
By using standard software and hardware, the costs will be extremely low and affordable even for the tightest budget. Fiat Auto plans to offer the C1 system initially for less then the cost of a Bluetooth car kit. For the very near future, price expectations are much lower than even that.