In 1999, an entailed press release purporting to be from the disgruntled head of US car firm General Motors (GM) and titled "if Microsoft made cars..." gained infamy across the world. Apparently in response to comments made by Microsoft's founder Bill Gates regarding GM's lack of technological advancement, the email joked how a Microsoft-built car would crash without warning twice a day, prompting you with 'are you sure?' before the airbag activated.
In those days, Windows had a reputation for locking up and crashing on a fairly regular basis, so it's not hard to see why a joke based on the absurdity of Microsoft going anywhere near a car was so popular. Ten years on, it's a reminder of how far things have come. In the past two years, more than two million cars, vans and other vehicles have rolled off production lines and onto the world's roads with a Windows-based computer inside, all supplied by Microsoft's Automotive Business Unit.
So why are car manufacturers putting all this technology in cars? As a blanket term, 'in-car technology' refers to anything electronic that's designed to work in your car and improve the driving experience. Such products have been around since the first car CD player in 1984, or first GPS-based navigation system in 1990. Cost has always been the overriding factor when it comes to automotive technology; devices that provide information and entertainment -1 now horribly fused as 'infotaimnent come at a high price. For this reason, high-tech car systems have always been far more popular with those who spend a considerable time on the road, demanding constant updates as to the best route to take and engaging in conference calls at 70 miles an hour.
Volkswagen's new Scirocco, for example, offers an option in the form of its RNS-510 system. This gives you a 6.5in touch-sensitive screen with satellite navigation, a hard disk capable of storing large amounts of music and video and a built-in DVD player. It's an attractive system and if you want to connect your mobile phone and answer it using the steering wheel controls, Volkswagen charges extra.
Similarly, Vauxhall's DVD 800 Navi system adds a hefty amount to the price of the Insignia, with a Bluetooth mobile phone system weighing in extra. Audi's technology package includes a digital TV tuner for watching Freeview, a 3G internet connection and parallel parking assistance using bumper-mounted cameras and ultrasonic sensors. And eight years after being met with disgust by users and critics alike, BMW's relaunched Drive is now one of the most advanced systems available - a 10.2inch touch-sensitive screen controls the vehicle's climate, suspension modes and even alerts the driver if BMW's Assist network detects an accident ahead by projecting warning notifications onto the windscreen. All for a decidedly princely sum. And therein lies the problem. Car manufacturers continue to demonstrate the pinnacle of their research and development departments' abilities, and pricing this technology accordingly. But a decade of change in the way we communicate - and a ban on using mobile phone handsets while driving in 2003 - has meant that it's no longer just business users who need extra technology to remain contactable on the road. Millions of us own a portable music player and don't want to go back to keeping a CD wallet in the glove compartment - but unless we take the technology package with our new car, we're stuck with fuzzy FM transmitters and uncomfortable Bluetooth headsets to get our favourite gadgets working. Many of these workarounds straddle the boundary of road safety legislation, as they require the handling of the gadget itself to operate.
A new hope
It's with this dilemma in mind that Microsoft's Automotive Business Unit has spent the last few years developing a new way for car manufacturers called Microsoft Auto way for carmakers to accommodate driversown gadgets, cheaply and safely. Microsoft's involvement in car technology began with Windows CE, a cut-down version of Windows that forms the basis of the Windows Mobile the car. It provides car manufacturers with a reference design operating system you'll find in Windows smartphones. Manufacturers such as Alpine, Kenwood and Pioneer have used Windows CE to design high-end aftermarket car entertainment systems around Windows technology.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has designed a sort of digital toolbox for car manufacturers called Microsoft Auto (www.microsoft.com/auto). Auto is basically a set of software that enables car makers to build in connection sockets for gadgets so they can be used in conjunction with the car. It provides car manufacturers with a reference design based on a low-powered processor and includes Bluetooth for wireless communication with the majority of modem mobile phones along with a USB port to enable a USB memory key or portable music player to be connected. It's simple and so adds little cost to the finished car. In fact, a car-industry analyst called iSuppli recently calculated the total cost of the bits and pieces needed to run Microsoft Auto in one vehicle to be only around Rs. 1000.
According to Tom Phillips, of Microsoft's Automotive Business Unit, price isn't the only lure for manufacturers: "As Microsoft Auto is built on Windows CE technology, thousands of developers already have the skills and tools to write applications."
If you've taken any notice of Fiat's advertising over the last year, you might be thinking all this sounds familiar - and you'd be right. Fiat established a partnership with Microsoft back in 2004, buying into Microsoft Auto, tweaking it for its own needs and rebranding it as Fiat Blue&Me.
The system was first made available in Fiat's Grande Punto in 2006, but it wasn't until the company made the significant decision to include Blue&Me in all but the most basic edition of its 2008 Fiat 500 that it started to get noticed. Bluetooth support, speech recognition and iPod connectivity were previously unheard-of in a sub-Rs 800000 car, but for Fiat, the minimal hardware requirements of Microsoft Auto made it possible.
As it's based on Windows, Blue&Me is able to offer a number of benefits over other interfaces. Rather than just passing the sound from your MP3 player to the car's speakers, for example, Blue&Me connects directly to the player's internal disk and reads the music itself, creating a library of your music in the car's memory that can be browsed through using the buttons on the steering wheel. A quick glance at the screen in the centre of the car's speedometer is all that's required to perform most functions, minimising the time your eyes are off the road.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Blue&Me is its implementation of artificial voice- and speech-recognition software created by Nuance Communications (www.nuance.co.uk). Holding a conversation with the cars pseudo-intelligent female host is fairly stilted but it does enable you to perform a number of tasks without removing your eyes from the road or your hands from the wheel.
As long as your mobile phone is somewhere in the car with Bluetooth enabled, you can push the Windows Start button on the steering wheel and say `call Steve'. Blue&Me will reply 'call Steve at home or on mobile?' - If you respond 'at home', within seconds the car will call Steve on the home number stored in your mobile phone address book. If you receive a text message on the move, Blue&Me will read it aloud - describing smileys and translating `xxxx' into 'kisses'.
As Blue&Me is based on Windows, it's easily expanded with more programs or updates, and Luis Cilimingras of Fiat said the company intends to make the most of this. "You'll be able to update the software in order to provide functionality with new devices, but also to install applications that will give you new possibilities to enjoy." Learning to drive, again
The first of these applications saw its official launch at the beginning of this year. Going by the name Ecodrive, it's possibly the cleverest piece of in-car technology ever seen outside Formula I's telemetric analysis labs - and if you own a Fiat Grande Punto or 500, it's a free download from Fiat's website (www. fiat co.uk/ecodrive).
On the other side of the North Atlantic, Ford US is also exploring just what it can do with Microsoft Auto. It began to include its own version of Auto, called Sync (www.syncmyride.com), in its 2008 line-up, and is working on its third version of the system. With the US car industry in tatters, Sync is quickly becoming a beacon of hope for Ford - CEO Alan Mulally announced earlier this year that cars equipped with Sync sell twice as quickly from its dealers than those without.
Sync 3.0 includes text and speech-based navigation. It's no replacement for big-screen sat nays from the likes of Tomtom, but it does provide drivers with a backup should they get lost or come across a road closure. It also offers a assist feature that informs emergency services of your position in the event of a collision.
This kind of technology promises technological advancement in considerably less development time than traditionally required. Microsoft already has Microsoft Auto 4 ready, offering compatibility with Intel's new Atom processor, currently found in low-cost notebooks - as well as full voice control of your media library.
Cheaper car insurance?
If the lure of a voice-controlled car stereo doesn't appeal, perhaps the offer of lower insurance premiums will. The new Fiat Bravo follows Ford in offering automated emergency calling in the event of an airbag firing, text-based navigation and satellite localisation which, Fiat says, will ensure insurance discounts of up to 20 per cent or up to 50 per cent on fire and theft insurance policies in western markets.
The key can be programmed by its rightful owner to limit certain features of the vehicle - specifically the top speed and the volume of the stereo. It will also enforce traction control, and if you neglect to put on your seatbelt, forget about listening to any music. Such systems are welcomed by police and insurance groups and if Mykey technology makes it way to India, may offer discounts on the high premiums usually offered to young drivers.
With this new technology, your car will be cheaper to insure, safer to drive and provide you with the feedback you need to become a better driver. It's difficult to dismiss this as frivolous, and it's a world apart from the dashboard DVD players and FM transmitters advertised by retailers as 'in-car technology'.
Car manufacturers are finally discovering what really happens if you let Microsoft build parts of your car, and in doing so are creating a bright future for affordable car technology that is built from the ground up to improve driving standards and road safety.
Bluetooth, and the blues and twos
In-car technology may be advancing at an impressive rate but as humans we're not evolving quite as quickly.
So while carmakers develop new ways to interact with entertainment and navigation systems more safely and simply, there's little they can do about our inefficiency in performing two unrelated tasks simultaneously.
The law makes it pretty clear that using a mobile phone while driving will land you in trouble, but what's made less clear is that the physical act of holding the phone to your head is only part of the issue. What's more likely to get you in trouble is the charge of driving without due care and attention.
There is no difference whether you're holding a mobile to your ear, using a Bluetooth headset or using a systom integrated into your vehicle's entertainment system."Often in workshops at schools or colleges, police will drop a ruler and get students to catch it between their thumb and forefinger.
They will then do the same thing, but will ask them to hold a hands-free phone conversation at the same time.
"Straight away you see a huge increase in reaction times, based on how many centimeters are allowed to pass before the ruler comes to a stop."