Crowdsourcing Auto Ideas
Ford’s flashiest effort in that direction to date is a deal, announced in September, with New York City’s Bug Labs to launch OpenXC, a programming interface makes that makes vehicle data available to developers. Ford’s idea is to treat a car a bit like a smart phone, letting outsiders write apps, develop new car gadgets, and test connectivity concepts.
While there are already three million cars that use Sync, it remains a “top-down” technology under Ford’s control, Prasad says. With OpenXC, Ford is experimenting with something far cooler: crowdsourcing modifications to its cars. Prasad calls it “a disruption, a mash-up of IT and the automobile technologies,” that would let anyone “co-create with the manufacturers.”
A prototype “plug and play” USB for a car dashboard. Ford
developed the design in collaboration with Bug Labs.
Currently, OpenXC gives access to 19 different signals from the car’s central switchboard (known as the controller area network), including engine speed, whether the windshield wipers are on, and the position of the accelerator pedal. Bug Labs demonstrated what can be done with such data by developing a solar-powered meter that records fuel efficiency and then uploads the data to a website where a driver can compete with friends to see who saves the most gas. Bug says it built the prototype in six weeks.
“The notion of hacking in automobiles has been around for decades—‘modding,’ or modifying, where people tinker with the engine, say for turbocharge,” says Peter Semmelhack, CEO of Bug Labs. “It’s a revolutionary idea to open up the car as a platform. But you also need a revolutionary approach to ensure widespread adoption.”
How far Ford will go is uncertain. The company says this month it will send OpenXC kits to three universities, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Michigan. Will Ford open an app store and let developers write apps and hardware makers modify the car? Although that is the spirit of OpenXC, in practice things are more complicated, says Jim Buczkowski, Henry Ford technical fellow at Ford Research & Innovation, and a former software developer. “Every point of integration is also a potential point of failure. Systems integration within the automotive arena is challenging,” he says, “but we see these opportunities to build platforms.”
What is certain is that Detroit and Silicon Valley are drawing closer. Last week, on the eve of the annual Detroit Auto Show, Ford announced it would be opening a research center in San Francisco, its first on the West Coast. “Silicon Valley represents a deep and dynamic technology neighborhood,” Prasad said in a press release that Ford sent to journalists Friday morning. “And [it] is far from Dearborn.”