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Entry-level telematics from Microsoft and Fiat Auto

The new telematics age is about to begin

From the start of 2006, customers will be able to enjoy telematics and in-car entertainment in a variety of ways even if they only have a small budget, thanks to a new telematics system developed by Microsoft and Fiat Auto..

Every driver knows situations like the following: while driving, you need to make a call. If you have not previously trained your mobile phone to recognize your voice for each phonebook entry, you have to dial the digits manually by pressing the corresponding buttons. Meanwhile, your attention is quickly drawn from the street. Would it not be nice (and much safer) to have an intelligent hands-free kit in the car that allows you to voice-dial with no speech training at all – because it immediately knows your mobile phone contacts?

At another time, you are invited to dinner. Although the directions you were given sounded simple, the routing is rather complicated, and you are driving around for quite some time without finding the target. Under these circumstances, you wish to have the help of a navigation system that does not cost a huge amount of money, but still leads you reliably all the way to the final destination.

As the GPS receiver for determining your current position is already on board of your car, no extra devices are needed for this offboard navigation assistance upon request. Perhaps you own a Pocket PC or Smartphone equipped with navigation software, but the mobile GPS receiver needs a lot of cabling in the passenger compartment. How easy life could be with a GPS receiver already embedded in your car, useable for either offboard or onboard navigation or providing the GPS information through Bluetooth to your personal navigation system, which resides on your PDA or smartphone.

These are only two small examples where the new, innovative entry-level telematics platform from Microsoft and Fiat Auto can show its unique advantages – giving you only a glimpse of the manifold possibilities the system really offers. In fact, there is much more.

Made with experience

The new telematics platform is the result of a long-term strategic partnership of Microsoft and Fiat Auto, both leaders in their market. Microsoft is the largest software company in the world, headquartered in Redmond, near Seattle, in the United States. Microsoft’s Automotive Business Unit (ABU), founded in 1995 and dedicated to in-vehicle solutions, is working closely with the automotive industry to deliver advanced in-car information, navigation, and entertainment systems. The technology of the highly customizable Windows Mobile for Automotive telematics platform from Microsoft is the driving force in 30 preinstalled and aftermarket devices from 13 automakers and suppliers in Europe, Asia, and North America.

Fiat Auto from Turin in Italy is one of the leading European carmakers and has been combining value, economy, and innovation since its foundation in 1899. Being one of the pioneers in the automobile industry, Fiat Auto has sold more than 85 million cars and light commercial vehicles so far. Fiat Auto has extensive experience in the telematics business, providing pan-European infomobility, location-based and vehicle behavior tracking services.

Guido Rovai, Manager of Fiat Auto, Head of Infotainment System Development, says: When we began the collaborative work with Microsoft on the new telematics platform, both of us were had our own early projects under way: Microsoft was experimenting with the prototype of an entry-level telematics hardware box running the Windows Mobile for Automotive software. Fiat Auto worked on a universal telematics platform not only to support manufacturing and service processes, but also to improve customer satisfaction. While each was coming from a different direction, both companies shared the same vision: creating an entry-level, end-to-end telematics solution, appropriate for cost-efficient mass production and flexible in terms of connectivity.

“Both companies had a very clear, a very close thinking of what a new entry-level telematics platform should be all about”, says Rovai. This formed the cornerstone for the strategic partnership Microsoft and Fiat Auto made public in July 2004.

Bluetooth hands-free kit and personal entertainment
To fit the needs of different types of customers, the telematics solution from Microsoft and Fiat Auto is modular from the foundation upwards. The Italian carmaker plans to offer two levels, with the higher level including the benefits of the preceding one.

The basic model already lays the foundation for the seamless integration of various customers’ personal devices. Through Bluetooth support, the car’s audio system can be used as a hands-free phone kit for Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones. “We worked on an evolution of our original telematics concept. To increase the level of interest for telematics, we chose the approach of adding new functions, and the first result was a Bluetooth hands-free car kit. In principle a hands-free kit does not really need an operating system inside, but we like to have the intelligence it offers” Rovai emphasizes. “By going that direction, we can offer customers a comfortable and safe call management. This is one of the highlights of our solution and already built into our new basic telematics device. Picking up incoming calls or accessing contacts stored in the mobile phone for initiating outgoing calls is now as easy and safe as it can be – simply by using voice, without lifting the hands from the steering wheel. Highly accurate, multi-language speech-recognition technology makes it possible: voice- and hence speaker-independent, training is not needed. Instead, the speech-recognition feature works straight away, even if more than one driver uses the car.

In addition, the device comes with a USB port in the dashboard. Mobile electronic devices like digital music players and tiny USB sticks, which are very popular for storing audio files in an MP3 or a WMA format, can be connected directly to that port. Like never before, drivers and passengers then have the opportunity to enjoy their favorite music in the car, conveniently played back by the audio system of the car.

Navigation – offboard and onboard

The premium model of the new telematics device Fiat Auto plans to offer includes a GPS receiver unit for navigation purposes. To determine the car’s exact location when surrounded by high-rise buildings, while driving through tunnels or in the mountains, the device uses a dead reckoning algorithm by default.

Customers will have direct access to offboard navigation and traffic information services like the ones offered from bConnect. There is no need for an expensive extra display. Small pictograms in the multi-function display of the instrument panel show the route to the destination, while the speech-engine clearly tells the driver through the car’s audio system which direction is the correct one. Voice recognition plays an important part as well: for safety reasons, all offboard navigation functions are speech-controlled.

An interesting option is the combination of Fiat Auto’s telematics unit with an onboard navigation solution, running on the customer’s own favorite mobile device (PDA, smartphone etc.). In case the mobile device features Bluetooth, the onboard navigation solution does not need an extra GPS receiver, but can instead immediately use the embedded GPS receiver of the car without the hassle of wires – and has at the same time the comfort of dead reckoning, which is impossible to achieve with a portable GPS receiver.

Additional services and intelligent location-based services
Furthermore, the top-tier device of Fiat Auto’s telematics platform opens up new possibilities through a variety of services and additional offerings. Thanks to its integrated GSM/GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) module, the device provides Internet connectivity and can transmit a large amount of information. Due to the always-on capabilities of the GSM/GPRS module, the current location of the car can be determined within seconds, ideal for future location-based services.

Rovai explains: “for example, a breakdown occurs, the new telematics device of Fiat Auto can help save valuable time and money.” Because the car is able to send information like its position to the road service company, the technician can directly hit the road and drive to the present location of the car, without needing the driver or passengers to describe where they are currently. Theft protection could be another example of a potential service supported by Fiat Auto’s top-tier telematics device. “Of course, our telematics solution is suited for the truck business as well”, Rovai adds.

In general, the premium model of Fiat Auto’s new telematics device assists the driver to better find this way to his favorite points of interest for business and private trips. Where is the closest automatic teller machine? How far away is the next gas station? Which restaurants are close-by? These and other questions are quickly answered by the infomobility services that will be offered for the new telematics platform. Says Rovai: “We already had some very exciting talks about offering tailor-made location-based services. Although it is currently too early to be more specific, I can definitely tell you: stay tuned for more!”

Standardization as key design element

When Microsoft and Fiat Auto began working on the cost-efficient, entry-level, end-to-end telematics system, they had a clear vision: to keep the price point low and to drive it down further over time, the solution must be built upon common standards.

Microsoft’s own Windows Mobile for Automotive telematics platform and Connected Car technology follows this guideline thoroughly: as an open system, the Windows Mobile for Automotive platform supports a broad range of automotive, communication and computing standards – CAN bus, Bluetooth, and USB, among others. By using common protocols like ActiveSync, MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) and SyncML, the car synchronizes with the address book and plays music files stored on pen drives, PDAs, smartphones or MP3 / WMA portable devices.
The same applies for the Connected Car technology: common Internet standards like Web Services and XML (eXtended Markup Language) assure easy, safe information exchange processes. Moreover, the Windows Mobile for Automotive platform is well suited for a rapid customization, which is important for decreasing the time-to-market of the solution.

On the hardware side, Microsoft and Fiat Auto jointly defined a standard reference design, which is modular and cost-efficient to produce. Automotive partners are contributing to this standardized hardware platform: Magneti Marelli, the components arm of the Fiat Group, builds the devices. The processor is supplied by the semiconductor division of Samsung Electronics, supplemented by a unit from programmable logic supplier Xilinx. A chip set from SiRF adds GPS functionality to the system. The GSM/GPRS radio module with integrated Bluetooth access to the SIM card of the mobile phone comes from the Siemens Communications division. Last, but not least, ScanSoft delivers the voice recognition and speech engine.

Together, Microsoft and Fiat Auto achieved their ambitious standardization objective. Even though Fiat Auto has not announced any details yet, the pricing will be very attractive for customers. “Thanks to our efforts in standardization, we were able to keep the cost very low. The new entry-level telematics platform from Fiat Auto will have an attractive retails price that gives customers excellent value for the money”, Rovai explains.

The new telematics age is about to begin

Microsoft and Fiat Auto are in the final stages of development. In the beginning of 2006, cars with the innovative telematics system will already hit the road. Fiat Auto customers have the freedom to choose: the solution will be available for the Fiat, Lancia, and Alfa Romeo brands – no matter, whether it is a compact, a sports car, a sedan or a commercial vehicle.

Hence, drivers and passengers are only a few months away from the beginning of a new telematics age to discover the car in a completely new way. Rovai: “Aside from its unique cost/performance ratio, the ease-of-use of the new, innovative entry-level telematics platform from Microsoft and Fiat Auto is convincing, too. Just use your Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone or MP3 player to experience it immediately by yourself.”

This article is part two of a series that describes the first standardized, cost-effective, entry-level, end-to-end telematics platform jointly developed by Microsoft and Fiat Auto. In the previous issue, we examined why both companies formed their long-term strategic telematics partnership and what this innovative project is about.

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