Windows for the car

DAVE WILSON finds that Microsoft has plans to put Windows in your car!

For a while, it seemed that the pleasures of PC computing might be confined to the office. Now, it seems, software giant Microsoft has plans to put the power of its Windows CE operating system into your car as well.

All this will happen as a result of the spread of the Auto PC. Powered by Microsoft’s Windows CE operating system, the Auto PC is a consumer electronics device which is installed in place of a vehicle’s radio. It will be available first as an aftermarket accessory, and will be factory installed in some vehicles in the US beginning in about model year 2001.

Claimed to be the last word in information and entertainment system for cars, the unit provides drivers access to personal information and driving directions as well as wireless services such as e-mail, paging and traffic alerts, a digital audio system, an AM/FM radio and a CD player. PC Companion devices are designed to work together, so users can share information between their Auto PC and a Handheld PC or Palm PC.

What is more, it has even got voice recognition built in. Voice commands let you organise phone numbers and addresses, autodial your cellular phone, prompt the unit for driving directions, as well as control the high-end digital audio system. The Auto PC’s 200 word speaker-independent vocabulary enables the driver to command the Auto PC to perform a number of functions, eg `radio seek’ and `doors lock’. The system can also be trained to recognise a practically limitless number of additional speaker-dependent words.

So when you are on the road travelling to your business appointments, you no longer have to rely on your local radio stations to provide traffic news every 10min. Wireless support options enable Auto PC to alert you to traffic slowdowns. With this information, you can ask Auto PC for alternative routes. Auto PC, which comes with navigation software, will then give you spoken directions that free you from struggling with a map.

With Auto PC, you can avoid other mishaps as well – like last minute surprises when you arrive at your appointment. And you can listen to your electronic mail messages (e-mail) or call ahead with wireless and cellular phone support options.

The Windows CE operating system version 2.0 makes it all possible. Because it is expandable, users can extend the usefulness of the unit by adding new applications such as a global positioning satellite (GPS) system, a wireless transmitter/receiver, or even games to play while you are stuck in traffic. No fewer than fourteen manufacturers have signed-up to produce the Auto PC.

Clarion Corporation of America (CCA), has already unveiled its AutoPC (Figure 1). The AutoPC features an AM/FM stereo radio with integrated Digital Signal Processing (DSP) equalisation and a built in 35W 3 4 channel amplifier. Running Windows CE, the unit is designed around a Hitachi SH3 processor and 16MBytes DRAM and 8MBytes ROM. It can recognise simple voice commands, allowing consumers to select music and retrieve information without taking their eyes off the road.

Through ‘speech synthesis` technology, the Clarion AutoPC provides information back to the driver by ‘speaking` the displayed text. Other built-in features applications include an address book and voice memo feature.

The Clarion AutoPC also has the ability to receive detailed, turn-by-turn driving directions with the purchase of a navigational database from NavTech. The Navigation database provides 150 navigation attributes for each street segment, addresses, and points of interest in 42 categories such as restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions.

Navitech is a precise digital representation of the road network that provides the coverage needed to enable turn-by-turn, door-to-door guidance. It provides detailed, street-level coverage for more than half the US population in over 3,000 cities nation-wide, including most major tourist destinations.

With optional map data from Navigation Technologies, the Clarion AutoPC is able to provide route calculation from a user specified starting location and destination, as well as spoken turn-by-turn directions. Coupled with an additional GPS receiver, the unit provides automatic starting point identification and location updates as well as pinpoints the driver’s exact locale.

NOT HERE YET

According to Alonzo Cardenas, vice president of Marketing, Clarion has plans to support the product in the UK in the future. `But before we deploy in the UK we must first implement the Voice Recognition and TTS engine to UK English. We will also need to support wireless services using their existing infrastructure. We will also have mapping information available but as to who’s map we will use, that decision has not been made,’ he says. Because of the number of things that need to be done, Cardenas was unable to provide any specific time frame when the product would be available.

Back in the States, another company, Vetronix, is also involved in developing products for the Auto PC. The company was contacted by Microsoft in September 1996 and invited to develop an interface between the Auto PC and the vehicle’s on-board computer-based controllers, such as the Powertrain Control Module and the Anti-Lock Braking System Controller.

In response to this, Vetronix is developing a hardware module which serves as a communication bridge between the Auto PC and the vehicle’s on-board computers.

The Vetronix module enables the Auto PC to access vehicle data such as RPM, road speed and Diagnostic Trouble Codes which in turn opens up the Auto PC to a wide range of applications which use this data. Vetronix will market the software applications along with the hardware module.

{{INFORMATION

Clarion Sales Corporation Tel: +1-310-327-9100Vetronix Corporation Tel: +1-805-966-2000General Magic, Inc. Tel: +1 408-774-4000}}