Ford Looks To Developers For Smart Car Momentum

Ford has unveiled two open-source programs to develop apps for smart cars. The automaker hopes to establish an industry-wide standard, but with competitors advancing their own platforms, the goal could be easier said than done.
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Ford last week made aggressive moves to take the lead in the burgeoning smart car market, not only opening its SYNC AppLink API to app makers, but also bringing its OpenXC platform out of beta. The announcements open the automotive industry to the collective creativity of the developer community, offering the potential that the driving experience might be reimagined in much the way Android and iOS have redefined the way users engage with mobile phones.

By making its tools open source, the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker hopes not only to enhance its own offerings but also to gain wide-reaching influence by establishing its programs as a standard used throughout the industry. Competitors are continuing to develop their own programs for smart vehicles, however, so it remains to be seen whether Ford's move represents the fast track to victory or the first lap in a lengthy race.

Of the two platforms, AppLink is intended more for producing customer-facing products. OpenXC will contribute to apps as well but more heavily emphasizes recording vehicle data -- such as speed, location and performance -- and turning it into actionable information.

[ Read about Google's driverless car. ]

Announced Jan. 7 during Ford's CES Press Day presentation, the developers' program is supported by a site where interested parties can download an SDK. Once equipped with the APIs, programmers can build apps that can interface with a vehicle, including functions that rely on voice controls or that are connected to buttons and displays in the car's dashboard. Ford also has partnered with jacAPPS, a Michigan-based mobile app development house, to aid developers who need help executing their ideas. The SDK supports iOS, Android and BlackBerry. Windows Phone is not currently part of the package, a somewhat ironic twist given that Microsoft helped Ford create AppLink.

Ford executives emphasized during the presentation that smart cars are intended to make the driving experience not only more enjoyable but also safer. To that end, certain apps won't be accepted, such as those that might compel motorists to play games or watch videos while driving. The company overviewed a number of apps that support the theme of keeping eyes on the road. The entries include: services that deliver audio content from USA Today and The Wall Street Journal; a product from Kaliki that will offer audio versions of articles from a variety of magazines and newspapers; music services from Amazon Cloud Player, Aha Radio, Rhapsody and Greater Media; and navigation apps from Roximity, Glympse and BeCouply. Both Roximity and BeCouply resulted from competitive hackathons Ford has sponsored since establishing AppLink.

The OpenXC program, meanwhile, was announced on Jan. 10. Based on the Arduino platform, it can be used to read data from a vehicle's internal communications network. Bill Frykman, Ford's manager of business and product development, remarked during an interview at CES that today's vehicles have more complex computing systems than space shuttles. OpenXC encourages developers to explore how all those sensors and processors can be harnessed. A collaboration between Ford Research and Innovation and Bug Labs, OpenXC was shared during its beta stage with several universities, including Michigan, MIT and Stanford.

A standard programming platform could help smart cars gain momentum. Although the largest companies have the resources to develop for a variety of proprietary systems, individual programmers often do not. The ability to write a single app that can be deployed across a variety of manufacturers' vehicles is appealing. Other automakers would have to embrace the idea of a Ford-authored open standard, though, and with several of them promoting their own programs at CES, it's unclear whether this scenario is likely. General Motors, for example, has also unveiled a developers' program.

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