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Accenture, Microsoft carpool on auto gadgets

The consultancy's new unit will work with Microsoft technology to create a common language for cell phones and dashboard computers. But they may have competition.

Microsoft and consulting group Accenture have teamed up to bring computer technology to automobiles and push along development of "telematic" services.

Accenture has set up a new division, the Services Bureau for Automotive Telematics, which will work with Microsoft's Car .Net architecture. That technology, along with the software giant's Windows CE for Automotive systems, is supposed to help create a common language for cell phones, handhelds and dashboard computers.

In lay terms, telematics is the combination of telecommunications and data, and the enabling of communications between various devices.

The two companies announced their plans Thursday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Microsoft and Accenture are not the only companies that are working on automotive telematics. Engineers have talked about combining computers and cars for some time, but have been slow to get some of the technology off the drawing board and on the road.

MobileAria, backed by Palm Computing, among others, is working on a service that allow people to connect with the computers while driving, using speech recognition technology.

Intel last year revved up its telematics program. And General Motors' OnStar unit is working with Sun Microsystems to integrate Java technology into the dashboard system.

Gonzalo Bustillos, director of business development and marketing for the Automotive Business Unit at Microsoft, said the software giant's Car .Net efforts will be compatible with open standards, noting that .Net will use XML (extensible markup language) to connect disparate systems.

"We will complement all mobile platforms," said Bustillos.

In their announcement, Microsoft and Accenture pointed to a UBS Warburg report that pegs the automotive telematics market at hitting $30 billion within 5 years. The Telematics Research Group predicts that by 2006 nearly 33 percent of all automobiles sold will include a telematics system.

The two companies said that combining their technologies will allow car companies to link customer services such as navigation and Internet access to billing and application-hosting programs.

Executives from Accenture and Microsoft painted a pretty picture of the telematics market, but acknowledged that mass adoption could be a decade away. Initially, early adopters will be most interested in telematics, but all of the major automakers "have aggressive plans for the near future," said Umar Riaz, partner with the Automotive Industry Group at Accenture.

To Riaz, the future of auto computing is one in which home and work PCs are synched up with the car PC. Drivers and passengers would be able to surf the Net, pull stock quotes, and get e-mail and instant messages via voice recognition. Behind the scenes, automakers would monitor the miles someone drives, keep maintenance records and alert a car owner when the warranty is about expire.

For folks who are bombarded by spam and other Internet inconveniences, Riaz's vision may sound alarming, but Bustillos said that future telematics systems would adapt to the driver's behavior.

"During the weekday, I'm a commuter so I may want everything," said Bustillos. "On weekends, it'll be different. It depends on what you're doing. Adaptability is key."