The Sync-enabled apps available today run on a smart phone, with a programming interface providing a connection between those apps and a car’s on-board voice engine. But the Michigan students are developing apps that will generally run in the vehicle, taking advantage of onboard processing and storage in a specially modified 2011 Ford Fiesta (Giuli refers to the research platform as “Fiestaware”). The students also have access to cloud-based services for computation and storage, and some are making use of that in addition to onboard resources.
At the end of the term, the student projects will be evaluated by a team of faculty, Ford engineers, and Microsoft leaders. The winning app will be embedded in the Fiesta, and the app’s creators will drive from Ann Arbor to the annual Maker Faire in San Mateo, CA.
The reason for using the app model is to bring a faster development cycle of mobile software to the automotive industry, says Giuli. While Web-based or mobile apps can be written in days or weeks, it typically takes several years for new technology to be built into cars. “You can’t stay relevant by releasing new features every three years,” Giuli says. By using more general-purpose hardware and then building software, he says, “you can follow consumer tastes more quickly and continue to make the vehicle relevant after it’s sold.”
Even using general-purpose processors and operating systems, there are special challenges in designing apps specifically for cars, however. For example, even within a manufacturer such as Ford, not every car model uses the same networking system to send data to and from the various sensors and subsystems in the vehicle. As a result, every app would have to be adapted for each basic car model. Giuli hopes that in the future, vehicle networking might be standardized, at least within a single automaker, to simplify things for app developers.
Venkatesh Prasad, who heads Ford’s Infotronics Research and Advanced Engineering team, says that the ultimate vision involves leveraging both existing app stores and finding new ways to distribute Sync apps. “The philosophy is to make the lives of our consumers easier,” he says.