Will voice control become the norm for in-car tech?

We look at Fiat's Blue&Me system, based on Microsoft Auto

Using Blue Me

Microsoft's new system means you can make calls and control music as you drive – simply by speaking. So how does it work? Ever thought what it would be like if there was a computer in your car – a proper PC that you could interact with? Well now there can be.

Blue&Me is a partnership between Microsoft Auto and Magneti Marelli – part of Fiat that develops high technology systems for in-car use. Controlled by your voice, Blue&Me enables you to make calls on your phone, listen to incoming text messages, check your phonebook and listen to music.

The system can even interpret abbreviations and smilies in your texts as it reads them out to you. This part of the system works in tandem with your mobile phone, which is synchronised with the system via the Bluetooth short-range wireless technology found in most modern handsets.

The Fiat cars with Blue&Me also have a USB port enabling you to connect up personal media players and other devices, while the system can be accessed using extra buttons on the steering wheel including a Windows-style Start button – can then be used to control the devices aside from the voice commands.

Fiat blue and me

Computing is moving towards more natural user interfaces, as we're currently seeing with Windows 7 and its support for voice and touch technologies.

Manufacturers are under pressure to reduce driver distractions, while customers are increasingly looking for ways to use their mobiles legally on the move. Safety is at the heart of Blue&Me, since drivers don't have to move their hands from the wheel to use it.

A recent study on in-car distraction by the Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany, showed that natural language speech recognition lowers distraction. The study worked by comparing the entering of an address part-by-part into a sat-nav by speech recognition with entering it with a single confirmation from an address book. The latter dramatically reduced the slowing of reaction time.

Fiat blue and me

Magneti Marelli has designed the system to be compatible with as many mobile phones and media players as possible. Running on the Microsoft Windows Embedded CE 6.0 operating system, Blue&Me is based on the Microsoft Auto software platform designed for in-vehicle use.

Formed over 10 years ago, Microsoft's Automotive Unit has released six major versions of its Auto platform and over 80 different car models are now available containing variations of the platform, from manufacturers such as Honda, BMW, Subaru, Toyota and Volvo.

Blue&Me is available on Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Lancia cars and Fiat's light commercial vehicles in Europe and South America. These include the Fiat 500, Grande Punto, Linea and Bravo as well as the Alfa Romeo 159, Brera, MiTo and Spider.

It's available as a standard feature in all top-end Fiat 500 versions and is also offered as an option in the entry-level 500 models. The new model Fiat 500 that we've photographed for this feature is produced in Tychy, Poland, alongside the new second-generation Ford Ka.

Sync the other system

The other main application of Microsoft Auto systems is Ford Sync. Just as Fiat's system is only available is certain areas, SYNC is only currently available in North America. Offered on some Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models, it's a very similar system to Blue&Me.

Ford shipped the millionth Sync-equipped vehicle in May – a 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid which was delivered to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Ford has achieved huge success with the Sync system – more than 80 per cent of the vehicles Ford sells in North America are equipped with the system. The platform has also been upgraded, with new applications Vehicle Health Report and 911 Assist added.

Existing owners can download the updates. Another new Sync application: Traffic, Directions and Information, will be available for download later this summer. The system is also built to be modular – meaning car makers and other device manufacturers can easily add their own elements to it.

Consequently, the system can keep pace with new technology and be easily adapted to different types of car as well as new phones and devices. Microsoft says it believes the 'infotainment' potential for the system is huge, and could change the way people communicate and listen as they drive.

But how does Blue&Me recognise your voice? Like many in-car handsfree systems – or those call centre speech recognition systems you get on the phone – Blue&Me uses universal voice recognition technology from Nuance, so the system doesn't need time to learn individual voices.

Fiat blue and me

Nuance makes the popular Dragon voice recognition software for Windows, but also powers the voice recognition inside many sat-nav devices from the likes of Tom Tom and Medion. Its speech recognition systems currently support 23 languages, while the text-to-speech engine that reads your text messages to you supports an impressive 34 languages.