Toyota, Microsoft to Bring the Cloud to Cars

Updated 7:35 p.m. EDT

The world’s largest automaker and the world’s largest software company are launching a $12 million venture to bring telematics to Toyotas via the cloud, allowing owners to, say, stream music, connect to information services and manage the batteries in their electric vehicles.

Toyota and Microsoft say they will create a global network based on the Seattle software giant’s Windows Azure cloud-computing platform, and we’ll see it first in the electric and plug-in hybrids the Japanese automaker plans to introduce next year. That’s key, because a big point of the project is creating a system by which cars like the forthcoming RAV4 EV and plug-in Prius communicate with, and draw power from, the grid.

The firms will work together through the automaker’s Toyota Media Service subsidiary to create a global, cloud-based telematics system within four years. The system will provide telecommunications and data, GPS and multimedia in a system similar to General Motors’ OnStar. It also will provide charging and battery management capabilities.

“Together, utilizing Windows Azure and Microsoft’s vast information infrastructure, we will boost the value of automobiles by making them ‘information terminals,’ moving beyond today’s GPS navigation and wireless safety communications, while at the same time enhancing driver and traffic safety,” Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp., said during a teleconference.

It isn’t an entertainment package, but rather a means of sending content and information to and from vehicles, computers and mobile devices. The idea is to connect vehicles to servers around the world, eliminating the need for a lot of hardware and software in the vehicle. Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer said that will make it easier for consumers to access services and easier for Toyota and developers to offer new applications and features.

The deal comes as many automakers hope to match, if not leapfrog, the success of Ford Sync and OnStar. Toyota is the latest to team up with Microsoft, which provided the system underpinning Sync and similar systems offered by Fiat, Hyundai and Kia. It also comes as automakers vow to bring us plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles within the next few years.

Some cars with cords, like the Chevrolet Volt, for example, have smartphone apps that allow owners to monitor how much energy they have and manage when and how their cars begin drawing power from the grid. Toyoda said effective communication between utilities and automobiles is one way to ensure fast, efficient charging. The ability to schedule charging when rates are lowest will be among the first, and most practical, services available, he said.

Looking further ahead, Toyoda envisions a day when the technology could help us manage energy use at home. The idea is that our cars, our homes and our phones will communicate with each other, with charging stations and with the grid.

“Our cars will play a big role in the global expansion of what we call ’smart centers.’ on-board systems capable of better managing overall energy consumption of cars, driving trips and homes,” Toyoda said. “So as we enter the smart grid era, I am confident that through our partnership we will improve our products’ contribution to sustainable mobility in which we can meet the travel needs of our customers and support a good economy, while maintaining safety and preserving the environment.”

The venture also could provide a new market for Microsoft Hohm, a home-energy-efficiency Web app. According to CNET, Microsoft believes the software could be used to manage charging and battery use in plug-in hybrids and EVs.

“We aren’t seeing the level of traction in home monitoring than we had hoped for, so we’re increasing our focus on EVs and making them more connected,” Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist, said Monday.

Toyota unveiled its own Sync-fighter, Entune, earlier this year. It uses smartphones to connect vehicles to the Internet. Although the venture with Microsoft could enhance some features of Entune, it will remain a separate feature, Toyota said.

Photo: Toyota