"We'd like to have one of our operating systems in every car on Earth," said Dick Brass, vice-president of Microsoft's automotive business unit. "It's a lofty goal."
Cars with the Microsoft software will speak up when it's time for an oil change. They'll warn drivers about wrecks on the road ahead and scout alternative routes. They'll pay freeway tolls automatically. The software running their brakes will upgrade itself wirelessly.
The Microsoft platform already is in 23 different car models, including the BMW 7 series, Citroen, Daimler, Fiat, Volvo, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Subaru and Toyota.
Brass made his remarks last week at a technology, tolls and transportation conference held at Microsoft and sponsored by the Discovery Institute's Cascadia Project.
Globally, there are 650 million cars, and 50 million new vehicles are produced every year, Brass said — comparable to the market for desktop computers.
Microprocessors already control major vehicle functions. And for years, Microsoft has been making inroads in automotive telematics, a combination of computers and telecommunications.
Brass said drivers spend millions of hours commuting and are distracted by myriad gadgets, including hand-held viewers that offer traffic reports from the state Department of Transportation.
Microsoft's "TBox," which he said would be available in 12 to 36 months, can connect them all and make them hands-free.
"The idea is to make it easy to bring phones and laptops into the car ... and connect to networks around it," Brass said.
The device has a processor, memory and a hard drive with no moving parts, said Peter Wengert, marketing manager for Microsoft's automotive unit.
At the conference, Brass showed on-the-street interviews asking what gadgets future cars should carry.
"I don't want Ford making PDAs, and I don't want Microsoft making cars," one man said.
But bringing the two together seems inevitable.
Brass said drivers could use the system to create 21st century vanpools and help reduce congestion.
"It's possible to imagine setting a system in place with 5,000 to 10,000 vans and have a dramatic reduction in traffic," he said. "With GPS and TBox, we have the tools we would need to put this all together."
Doug Klunder, director of the Privacy Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, asked Brass how Microsoft plans to protect individual information.
"We really, really, really understand the need for security and privacy," Brass said, suggesting that encrypting and not storing the information are two ways to address some concerns.