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Creating Apps Just for Cars

Ford and the University of Michigan are developing social networking apps.
March 17, 2010

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.

Moving music: Pandora used a new application interface released by Ford to create a version of its streaming-radio app that drivers can control with the Ford Sync voice interface.

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.

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.

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