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If you have a smart phone, chances are good that you add to its functionality pretty often by downloading new software apps. But updating the computer systems built into your car usually requires a long visit to the dealership, where company technicians install new software using special interfaces.

Ford has begun changing that paradigm with its Sync and MyFord Touch systems, and by opening the Sync programming interfaces to mobile app developers. In January, Ford, Pandora, Stitcher, and Orangatame debuted Sync-enabled software that allow drivers to use the car’s voice-recognition and speech-synthesis systems to interact with Internet-based streaming radio and Twitter apps running on the driver’s phone.

Now Ford is looking to do much more than simply create in-car versions of existing smart phone applications. With the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Microsoft, Ford is providing expertise for a computer science and engineering course called “Cloud Computing in the Commute.” Students in the class will work in small teams to design, build, and demonstrate automotive telematics applications. “The services you care about when you’re driving are different from those you use when you’re walking around with your phone,” says T.J. Giuli, a software engineer in Ford’s Infotronics Research and Advanced Engineering division, who is co-teaching the class with Michigan professors Brian Noble and Jason Flinn. The software development platform for the class is based on Microsoft’s Windows 7 and Robotics Developer Studio and will provide access to vehicle performance data, networking services, voice recognition, text-to-speech, and Internet services such as social networking platforms, as well as to the Windows Azure cloud computing environment.

“We’re not interested in apps that could be running on your smart phone and moving it into your car,” says Noble. Instead, the students are developing unique apps, such as a “green mileage” application, or a crowd-sourced app to track road conditions and traffic. “The challenge is to find a killer app and then build it,” Noble says. A particular emphasis is being placed on using the existing voice-recognition and speech-synthesis capabilities of Ford’s Sync system to simplify driver interactions with the automotive apps.

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Credit: Ford Motor

Tagged: Communications, Internet, social networking, mobile devices, Ford

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