Cars and the Internet are slowly getting closer, but it's still hard for developers to get their apps into cars without being invited by the automobile industry. Given the security and especially safety concerns involved here, things will likely remain this way for a while, but a new project from Ford aims to accelerate in-car app development. The company today announced that it is now shipping a beta version of its OpenXC hardware and software platform to a group of handpicked universities, including the University of Michigan, MIT and Stanford, as well as app developers like the Weather Underground in the U.S. and HCL Technologies in India.

OpenXC was developed in corporation with Bug Labs.

The Modular and Upgradable Car

Here is the general philosophy behind OpenXC:

What if the user-facing hardware and software was independent from any one vehicle, and could be purchased and installed by consumers as an aftermarket add-on? What if the infotainment hardware was more modular and user-upgradable, and perhaps most importantly, transferable from one vehicle to another?

openxc baseboard
Building the OpenXC hardware
If it becomes widely adopted, every car would feature an OpenXC connection that is linked to the dashboard interface and audio system. Then, you could just buy extra hardware modules or software for your cars and plug it into the OpenXC connections just like you plug a USB device into your computer. Your wireless provider, for example, could offer a 3G module and if you want to switch to LTE, you just swap the modules out.

The average car now has a lifespan of 13 years, says Ford. That means the technology your car uses today will be outdated quickly if you can't upgrade it. OpenXC would make it possible to keep up to date for far longer.

For Developers: OpenXC Brings Android and Arduino to Your Car

This new platform is currently based on Android and gives developers real-time access to a large number of a car's sensors, the GPS receiver and other data from the car's systems. Ford notes, however, that there is no reason why somebody couldn't port the libraries it uses to other operating systems as well. The reference hardware, which uses the popular Arduino platform, should cost under $150 (plus the cost of an Android tablet).

It's worth noting that this is currently only a limited release and that the actual source code is not yet available. Ford, however, promises that it will happily add more developers every day (you can sign up here) and that the source code will be available soon.

To ensure these new apps don't interfere with the basic functions of the car itself, the apps remain isolated from the vehicle control systems (think steering, brakes, ABS etc.).

When Ford and Bug Labs first announced their plans for OpenXC, the companies noted that they hope that this platform will allow developers to "quickly prototype ideas and test out affordable new connectivity concepts that could enhance Ford’s future products."

One of the apps Ford is demoing today was built by HCL and interfaces with the car's GPS to provide regular location updates selected personal contacts.

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