Behind the scenes at the birth of Microsoft’s intelligent car program

Posted By Walter Sullivan
Senior Project Manager, Windows Embedded Automotive

Walter Sullivan, senior project manager for Windows Embedded Automotive

Ten years ago, in April of 2003, a small team from Fiat and Microsoft got together in Redmond, in Microsoft’s Building 32, to talk about a potential collaboration. I was lucky enough to be in this meeting, unsure of whether there was any real opportunity. Through the course of the discussion, we started to realize that Fiat and Microsoft had a very common vision for how mobile devices would be integrated into the driving environment; both companies recognized the growth in personal mobile devices we were about to see. In fact, as we were prototyping our concept, the engineers at Fiat and their Research Center (CRF) were working on a very similar concept, which we saw for the first time later in 2003 as we continued our discussions. We at Microsoft called ours T-Box; Fiat called theirs Convergence. The similarities were uncanny.

Development actually began in early 2004, and we handed off the final production device to Fiat in June of 2005. We developed the hardware and the software from scratch (very little of either prototype was actually used in the production system) in about 16 months. Over the next few months, we continued to build the second version, which added an embedded cellular module, vehicle diagnostics and navigation. The products, of course, were Fiat’s Blue&Me and Blue&Me Nav, which began production in the fall of 2005.

There are a number of aspects to the product itself which I believe helped set some trends for the industry. We were the first to expose a consumer-accessible USB port, and furthermore, designed the system to be updated through that USB port by the owner of the vehicle. Ours were among the first vehicle designs to standardize on NAND flash. Blue&Me was also a truly extensible, updatable application platform which Fiat and Magneti Marelli used to evolve the system in very interesting ways in subsequent years. We also pushed the state of the art for speech user interfaces, especially in a product simultaneously shipping in ten languages.

The first application was an SMS Reader, later becoming one of the built-in apps. Then came the very innovative eco:Drive, one of the first driving coach applications complete with a social networking back-end. Blue&Me MAP, Blue&Me Tomtom and Blue&Me Fleet were also built on this extensible solution. The value of a robust, well-designed and updatable software platform was well proven in this solution. While Microsoft wrote the software for the first two versions, the development tools we built allowed the applications, additional localizations and subsequent evolution to be done by Fiat and some of their partners.

The virtual team we built across Fiat, CRF, Magneti Marelli and Microsoft accomplished a ton in a short period, and I’m honored to have played my part leading the team that built the development tools and applications. We had trust, collaboration and conflict, but also ultimately the recognition that we were all trying to build the best product we could within the constraints we had signed up for.

Now, after well over two million vehicles have shipped with Blue&Me, Fiat and our partners at Continental have started production of the replacement system built on Windows Embedded Automotive, part of the Uconnect family of devices we’ve recently highlighted in a case study of the development of that system. We’re thrilled to be continuing our partnership with Fiat and Continental on this new generation of devices. You can read more about Microsoft’s vision for the future of the intelligent car on our website.