Microsoft and partners are transforming transportation

Microsoft’s John Stenlake explains why emerging mobility services can create transformational change in automotive and transportation, and how they can be enabled

Alex Smith
By Alex Smith on 08 October 2021
Microsoft and partners are transforming transportation

Vehicles are becoming connected, and a vast amount of data is accessible to original equipment manufacturers (OEM). This can provide detail on every aspect of their maintenance, location and behaviour, and help them to significantly improve their own operations.

But there are a huge variety of other possible applications for this data, too, ranging from more effective fleet management solutions to new, intelligent transportation systems. Such applications are only achievable in partnership with other stakeholders, so to fully realise the transformative potential of these services, OEMs will need to begin sharing their data to some degree.

“The concept of data sharing between organisations doesn’t necessarily mean it’s shared for free, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s open data,” says John Stenlake, director of vehicle innovation and mobility for automotive, mobility and transportation industry at Microsoft. “But broadly speaking, integrated mobility systems can’t be achieved without the movement of data between parties to enable multiple actors to be coordinated. There’s a lot of data that could be usefully shared, and it’s important that this is done in a consistent, coherent and affordable way.”

Information is becoming an asset that can be exchanged by OEMs to drive innovation. Using the advanced insights that can now be extracted from a vehicle’s data, companies can pivot their offerings into building smart mobility services. These produce new streams of revenue and have the potential to improve overall profitability beyond their core businesses.

“Vehicle data has value, and many different people can make use of that data,” says Stenlake. “Insurers, for example, are willing to pay for data to enable usage-based insurance scenarios. Even customers might be willing to pay for data that shows the condition of their car. No one stakeholder has to pay a massive amount of money for this data, but the fact that you’ve got several of them and the fact that it’s continuous through the whole service life of the vehicle means that you are going to be able to monetise your connected vehicle service.”

One of the most significant areas of growth in the field is in fleet management solutions. By monitoring connected vehicles within a fleet, these solutions can provide insights into their performance, deployment and maintenance.

“Currently, fleet management solutions are used either in commercial or internal fleets,” says Stenlake. “They take telemetry data off the vehicle, and process that to provide insights on how the vehicles are being used and what their current state is, and provide a degree of management when calculating when vehicles should be serviced.

However, Microsoft sees fleet management solutions as having a much wider role in future transport systems.

“We like to think differently about this area,” says Stenlake. “The fleet manager is not the only person that cares about the vehicle. Stakeholders who are interested in what a vehicle does range from individual drivers to leasing companies, charging operators if it’s an electric car, city authorities and parking operators if they live in a city, as well as the whole automotive value chain including suppliers and dealers. So what fleet and vehicle management solutions should be striving to do is enable that broader ecosystem with OEM data, which would really open up the space for innovation and better outcomes for a larger set of stakeholders.”

To help demonstrate the potential of its approach to fleet management, Microsoft has developed its own in-house solution, known as Project Raven. Built by the Azure mobility team in cooperation with Accenture, the solution is currently being rolled out at Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters. As well as helping Microsoft direct electrification of its internal fleet, Project Raven has the potential to interoperate with transport systems in the cities of Redmond and Bellevue, enabling shuttle buses to better synchronise schedules with existing public transport.

“Project Raven is being built by our Azure Mobility engineering team working closely with Accenture,” says Stenlake. “We’re hoping to pilot some of the broader principles of how we can collaborate with stakeholders using some of the information that we collect in order to demonstrate the fact that fleet and vehicle management is a lot broader than just running your fleet efficiently.”

One of the dominant trends in all forms of transport is the move towards electrification. Electric vehicles are becoming more prevalent, and while the infrastructure is being deployed to support them, availability of charging ports will be a key issue. If a port is not available when needed, journeys can become extended or even impossible.

“The way that this problem is being addressed today is through providing overcapacity,” says Stenlake. “The idea being that if enough charging ports are put in place, there’s a reasonable chance one will be available. But experience shows that significant queues are still stacking up at times of high demand – and of course the most sustainable solution is right-size infrastructure.

“The answer can be found in prebooking charging. By allowing drivers to plan their journey including charging, this solution would provide a predictable outcome that makes full use of available charging capacity and could help charging providers and grid operators plan for the demand placed on their systems. You could even differentially price for areas of high demand and correspondingly use lower pricing to incentivise people to charge in periods of less high demand. An industry standard API to achieve this has been agreed, but it’s not currently being implemented.”

The location data available from a connected car can also be usefully used in improving and enabling a range of services, such as routing, measurements of real-time traffic flow or real-time information on public transit. For example, Microsoft’s Azure Maps platform can accurately assess the weather by combining observational data obtained from sensors with global atmospheric weather models. This can allow an alert to be generated to warn of a weather hazard and suggest that a vehicle in a fleet be rerouted. A dispatcher can then reroute the fleet around environmental conditions, and the expected time of arrival is updated accordingly.

“The set of services that Azure maps provides is potentially very helpful for building most mobility solutions,” says Stenlake. “It has been developed in partnership with TomTom, Moovit and AccuWeather, and provides value not only in mapping but in the additional services it can enable.”

According to Stenlake, Microsoft’s role will be in helping the industry work together to develop these new services, supported by the capabilities of its technologies.

“We’re focusing on leveraging the power of our horizontal platform and on building intelligent approaches that can be adopted by an ecosystem of players,” says Stenlake. “These new services are complex and require many actors to be integrated together in a unified approach. That’s the ethos of everything that we’re trying to do in mobility.”  

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2021 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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