SiliconFilter

OpenXC: Ford Launches an Open-Source Platform for In-Car Connectivity and Apps

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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?

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 That means the technology your car uses today will be outdated quickly if you can't upgrade it.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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11:16 am


As More Cars Get Connected, Are the Days of Radio Coming to an End?

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For better or worse, our cars are slowly turning into Internet-connected gadgets. Chances are that by the time the 2015 models arrive, virtually every new car except for the most basic models will be able to connect to the Internet in some form. Unless the carriers decide to cap our downloads a 200MB, it's a safe bet that streaming media will take a good chunk of market share from good old radio and the days of the morning zoo drive time shows may (thankfully) be coming to an end. Today, quite a few drivers use their phones to stream music to their cars already, but overall, this is still a minority.

Connected Cars are Going Mainstream

As CES this week, one trend has clearly been towards brining more entertainment content to the car over the Internet.

Here are just the announcements from yesterday: NPR and Ford announced a partnership yesterday. HARMAN's Aha platform is being adopted by Honda and Subaru and also features content from partners like NPR, MOG, Slacker and others. Pioneer's Zypr platform will power Scion's BeSpoke connected infotainment audio system (PDF).

Today, Ford is also announcing that mobile streaming app TuneIn is now compatible with its SYNC AppLink platform. This will give drivers with compatible cars and phones the ability to choose between 50,000 AM, FM, HD and Internet-based radio stations and close to a million on-demand programs ready for streaming. All of this, of course, can be controlled by your voice or with the buttons on your steering wheel.

Also announced at CES: streaming radio service Slacker just turned on its long-announced (but somewhat delayed) partnership with ESPN. Slacker also lets you play news programs at the top of the hour, so if you use this service in your car, you won't even miss the news. Given that the car itself can probably pull in traffic data anyway (maybe with the help of the newly announced Scout.me service), chances are you won't even miss the old-fashioned traffic reports as your car will route you around traffic jams automatically.

Some forms of radio will probably be around for a while, especially talk radio, but it's hard to imagine that too many drivers will still be tuning their radios to any channel in a few years from now – but you will tune in by clicking on your car's or your phone's touchscreen. No dial needed.

Image credit: Flickr user Night_Owl

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12:00 pm


Connect Your Car to NPR: Ford Brings Voice-Controlled NPR Streaming App to SYNC

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Here is another nail in the coffin of traditional terrestrial drive-time radio: Ford and NPR just announced the launch of NPR's updated Android and iPhone apps with support for Ford's SYNC AppLink service that connects your phone to your car's built-in infotainment system. With this app, Ford drivers who own compatible vehicles will, for example, be able to get on-demand access to NPR's newscasts by simply using a voice command like "hourly news" to start the program.

Control NPR With Your Voice

Ford is deeply invested in making voice control a central feature of its in-car user experience (partly for safety reasons), so the NPR app, too, will make heavy use of the built-in voice recognition features that are part of SYNC. Some of the examples Ford notes are the ability to select programs like Car Talk or Tell Me More by just asking your car to play them. In addition, you can also get access to recent stories from NPR's many programs by asking for "stories" and then the topic you are interesting in (say "science").

You can also use the app on your phone to create your own custom playlist before you start driving, of course.

While Ford has launched a number of AppLink-compatible apps in recent months, this is the first dedicated news app for the service and NPR's first foray into the world of connected cars. As with other AppLink apps, you do bring your own wireless connection to the car. This is Ford's model for in-car connectivity in general. Other car makers have opted for partnerships with wireless carriers to bring the Internet to their cars.

Given how many people already stream music and radio programs over the Internet in their cars, we can only hope that others will follow suit (iHeartRadio seems like a natural partner).

More New SYNC Apps from TeleNav and Ford Itself

Ford today also announced two other apps that support AppLink, including one for TeleNav's newly announced personal navigator Scout.me service and a new version of Ford's own SYNC Destinations App.

Ford's SYNC AppLink is available on a range of 2012 models, including the Fiesta, Mustang, Fusion and F150.

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5:00 pm


Ford Updates its MyFord Touch Interface: Easier to Use, Faster and Less Distracting

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Ford today announced a major upgrade to its MyFord Touch user interface that allows drivers to control virtually all aspects of their cars infotainment system with the help of voice commands, a touchscreen and dedicated buttons on the dashboard. The earlier MyFord Touch system, which was available on a number of 2011 and 2012 model year cars, has a reputation for being overly complex and slow. The update the company announced today greatly simplifies the user experience and also offers a major performance boost, resulting in faster screen redraws and a more fluid user interface. Ford also enhanced compatibility with Bluetooth smartphones (which now offers iPad support as well), improved the voice recognition experience and upgraded the turn-by-turn navigation system.

The new system will make its debut on the 2013 Ford Escape, Flex and Taurus. Current owners will be happy to hear that Ford plans to send them a USB stick with the software upgrade by early next year. This upgrade will be free and installing it will be as easy as plugging the USB driver into the car and waiting for the install to finish.

I got a chance to test the new system out during a trip to Ford’s headquarter in Dearborn, MI last week (see disclosure below).

myford_touch_redesign_1

Driven to Distraction: MyFord Touch 1.0

With SYNC, Sync Applink and MyFord Touch, Ford was at the forefront of the auto industry to bring voice recognition, touch screens, apps and connectivity to its cars at a time when most of these features were only available in luxury cars. At the same time, though, while these new systems helped to drive sales, the company’s reputation has suffered somewhat over the last year or so as these advanced systems turned out to be somewhat too complex, distracting and cumbersome for many drivers.

Smarter User Interface

As Ford user interface design engineer Jennifer Brace told me last week, Ford conducted a number of user clinics with current MyFord Touch owners over the course of the last year and tried to address their main concerns with this update.

The new interface does away with most of the clutter that made the old one hard to use. While it keeps the same basic layout with four quadrants of the screen (Entertainment, Climate, Navigation and Phone), every single screen has been redesigned by Ford’s engineers to make using the system more intuitive. The whole system now features simpler graphics, larger fonts and just focuses on providing more glancable information to the driver without unnecessary distractions.

Other design upgrades include more obviously pressable buttons, a move towards a more standard icon set (think magnifying glasses for zooming in and out and a gear icon for changing your settings etc.), and more 3D landmarks in the maps app as well as easier to read street names.

Faster

Besides sprucing up the interface, Ford’s engineers also worked on making the whole experience faster while keeping the same hardware. Indeed, as Ford told me, the 2013 model year cars the updated system will make its debut on will actually feature the exact same hardware as the old models (partly in order to ensure compatibility for current owners). The speed updates – which are quite significant when you see the old and new software side-by-side – are solely based on optimizing the software.

The video blow explains the update and new features in more detail:

Disclosure: Ford provided this author with transportation to its Dearborn, MI headquarters, as well as lodging and meals.



5:01 am


Ford to Demonstrate Google-Powered Smart Electrification Technology Later this Week

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Earlier this year, at Google I/O, Ford and Google announced a new project that would use Google’s cloud-based tools to make vehicles smarter. Later this week, at the 18th World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems, Ford will give its first public demonstrations of the fruits of this work. The idea behind this work is to use Google’s Prediction API to “predict driver behavior in order to optimize vehicle control systems and improve vehicle performance attributes such as fuel or hybrid-electric efficiency.”

In Ford’s vision, this technology will help drivers to save gas, find the best times to drive a specific route and maybe even set your cars performance settings to optimize your vehicle for the route you are about to drive. Using historical data – where and when a driver has traveled and at what speeds, for example – and real-time information about current traffic flows, this system will be able to turn these predictions into actionable recommendations for drivers.

Until now, most of the cloud-based technology that has made it into cars was about navigation, real-time traffic and infotainment. Now, says Ryan McGee, technical expert, Vehicle Controls Architecture and Algorithm Design, Ford Research and Innovation, “this technology has the potential to empower our vehicles to anticipate a driver’s needs for various reasons, such as optimizing a vehicle’s powertrain efficiency.”

In the demonstration that Ford has planned for this week, the company will show how “a prototype Escape Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV) could use a combination of cloud-based and proprietary technology to learn when to switch from being gasoline-powered to all-electric upon entering a lower emissions zone. Cities such as London, Berlin and Stockholm already have such zones.” Thanks to being able to predict when exactly you will enter such a zone, the car, says McGee, “could optimize itself to comply with regulations and at the same time optimize energy usage over the total distance of the route by switching the engine to all-electric mode at specific times.”



6:30 pm


Safe Driving: Why Your Next Car Will be Connected to the Cars Around it

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When cars can talk to the Internet, many interesting things can happen. When they can talk to each other, though, even more possibilities open up.

Connected cars that have always-on Internet connections and are able to send and receive data as the driver moves through traffic are becoming more and more common. The next wave or car connectivity, however, could be less about the Internet and more about creating ad-hoc networks between cars and allowing them to talk to each other. Various academic and industry groups are currently working on testing these systems, which allow cars within a certain radius to alert each other of sudden stops, cars that are about to blow red lights and other hazards.

Making Car-to-Car Communication Mandatory

This isn’t just an academic question anymore, either, as Ford, for example, is already regularly demonstrating the abilities of its system to the press and as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has set a deadline for developing a standard for this kind of car-to-car connectivity. By 2013, the car industry is expected to agree on a standard for these systems and there is some talk about making them mandatory in new cars soon thereafter.

I spent some time in Dearborn, MI last month and got to take a look at Ford’s car-to-car “Intelligent Vehicles” communications system (see disclaimer below) that shows just how effective this kind of technology can be in avoiding accidents. The video below shows what this looks like in practice:

The technology allows the cars within a set radius around each other to exchange basic data like location, speed and direction of travel and more detailed information like whether somebody is accelerating, decelerating or braking and what a car’s steering angle currently is.

ford_car_demo

Coming to a Car and Intersection Near You

To make all of this a reality, though, car makers will not just have to agree on a standard for exchanging this information, but tools like this will also have to be available in enough cars to make them useful. As one of Ford’s engineers explained to me, there are already some technologies that make some of this functionality available to drivers, but they are generally based on proprietary – and hence expensive – parts. These car-to-car communication systems, on the other hand, are mostly based on off-the-shelf technology and can get their data from sensors that are already standard in most new cars anyway.

The system gets even more effective once the streets themselves also become connected. Not only could an intersection tell a driver that he is about to blow a red light, but traffic lights themselves could also be adjusted on the fly for any given traffic condition.

If the NHTSA really makes car-to-car communication mandatory, we will likely see rapid development in the deployment of these technologies, which, after all, will also make driving safer and could even speed up the arrival of self-driving cars.

What About the Police?

While thinking about this technology, I couldn’t help but also think about what this will mean for detecting speeders. Today, traffic cops still have to get out their laser or radar guns to find speeders. This new technology could make things a bit easier. Just wait for a speeding car to pass within range, get the data and pull the driver over. When cars are talking to each other, after all, they will also talk to the police cruiser that is parked next to the road. So far, I haven’t seen anybody address this issue, but it will surely become a hot topic as awareness about car-to-car communication grows.

Disclaimer: Ford covered for my travel and hotel expenses to the Forward with Ford conference in June.



6:08 pm


As Car Makers Add More Technology to Their Vehicles, New Problems Appear

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Our cars are quickly becoming sophisticated computers on wheels and new cars often feature technologies like speech recognition, lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control and blind-zone alerts that would have looked like science fiction not too long ago. Now, however, the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study shows that quite a few of these new technologies end up confusing users and have lead to a massive drop in the quality ratings for some manufactures. The clearest example for this is Ford, which has been instrumental in bringing many of these technologies to the mass market. In the J.D. Power ranking, the company dropped from fifth place in 2010 to 23rd this year, showing that this new technology clearly leaves some buyers unsatisfied.

(more…)



9:11 pm


Using WiFi to Create Smarter, Safer Cars and Intersections

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A few weeks ago, I wrote that your next car might just have its own IP address. Besides talking to the Internet, though, there is also a lot of utility in using short-range networks that can link multiple cars together into a single, ad-hoc network and alert drivers of potential hazards. Today, Ford announced a new initiative that will rely on short-range WiFi signals to enable cars to create local networks to exchange data about their positions and speeds to avoid accidents.

Of course, this system only works once a lot of cars and manufacturers offer this feature and agree on a standard, but as the video below shows, there is a lot of potential for this. Cars that can talk to each other (and maybe even get traffic information from local “smart” intersections or highway on-ramps) don’t have to rely on expensive systems like radar. Instead, just basic GPS information, coupled with an ad-hoc WiFi network and some smart software could, as Ford puts it, “warn drivers if there is a risk of collision when changing lanes, approaching a stationary or parked vehicle, or if another driver loses control.”

Not Just Smart Cars, But Smart Intersections, Too

Ford is also proposing “smart intersections” that would be able to talk to cars and be able to “monitor traffic signal status, GPS data and digital maps to assess potential hazards, and then transmit the information to vehicles.”

The company is working with other car makers and the U.S. government to create standards for bringing this technology to deployment. In addition to all of this, the company also announced that it is doubling its intelligent vehicle investment in 2011 and plans to have demonstration vehicles that offer this WiFi-based technology on the road in the next few months.



10:28 am


Why Your Next Car Will Have an IP Address

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One trend that has become very clear at this year’s CES is that the Internet is slowly making its way into our cars. Of course, you can already browse the Net and play music from Pandora through your smartphone, but the next generation of cars – and especially electric cars – are making the Internet an integral part of the car’s feature set.

Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Chevy and most other major car manufacturers are introducing connected cars this year. These cars will all either feature fully integrated built-in Internet access through on-board wireless modules or, as is the case with Toyota’s Entune multimedia system, use a smartphone connection to enable this functionality.

Ford’s new plug-in Focus Electric, which it officially launched at CES today, for example, features a built-in wireless connection that connects the car to the cloud and allows owners to communicate with the car from their smartphones and through a mobile-optimized website. With SYNC, MyFordTouch and AppLink, Ford will allow owners of some of its cars to run apps like Pandora and control them through the car’s built-in entertainment system and control their features by voice.

Toyota_Entune mockup

While Ford was the first company to take this technology mainstream, a number of other manufacturers are now picking up on this trend as well. Toyota’s Entune will bring music from Pandora, Internet radio courtesy of IHeartRadio, restaurant reservations from OpenTable and search and maps from Microsoft’s Bing to some of its 2012 models.

Indeed, Microsoft is a player on a lot of fronts here. Ford’s SYNC, for example, is based on Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Automotive platform and Bing is not just coming to Toyota but also to Hyundai.

Third-party manufacturers are also getting into the game. Harman, for example, introduced a 4G wireless module for LTE networks that will allow drivers to bring the Internet to their older cars. This system will feature real-time traffic updates, games, streaming video and will give passengers access to the full Internet.

What is driving this trend?

First of all, the proliferation of smartphones has allowed us to become accustomed to having ubiquitous Internet access wherever we are. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that we expect the same from the most expensive piece of technology most of us own: our cars.

Harman's In-Car Internet System

Another factor that’s driving this trend is that – unless you are a real car enthusiast – the main differentiator between cars in the same category today is technology. Touchscreens, voice recognition, access to your Pandora stations and – on a more basic level – an easy and working system for pairing your phone with your car over Bluetooth can be powerful factors when consumers make their buying decisions.

For electric cars, having Internet access in some form is virtually a must. With their limited range (generally around 100 miles), knowing where the next charging station is can make our break your trip to the grocery store. This data is changing rapidly, however, as new stations come online almost daily, so the manufacturers need to have the ability to update these cars’ navigation databases remotely. Bringing the car in to the dealership once a month to update the GPS system isn’t exactly a practical solution.

In some ways, this is turning cars into the ultimate gadget (and is also a challenge when it comes to usability). Just look at the Focus Electric, for example, which (assuming I counted right) features 18 buttons on the steering wheel alone, has to small LCD screens right in front of the driver and a large one in the middle console.

Full Internet Access and Any App You Want in Your Car? Not Quite Happening Yet

For now, most manufacturers are not bringing the full Internet experience to the car yet and only allow a limited set of apps on their dashboards. There are good reasons for that. The car industry is highly focused on safety and a malfunctioning app that takes over your audio system, for example, and suddenly overrides your volume settings due to a software bug, plays AC/DC at full volume and startles you to the point where you have an accident is a major liability and could cost a company like GM millions.

So for now, your smartphone is your best bet for getting online in your car (while you are in the passenger seat, of course), but your next car itself could be transmitting maintenance data over the Internet while you’re driving down the highway, allowing you to open and close your doors with the help of a smartphone app (Ford and GM are introducing this for their electric cars) and sending you a text message when its battery is running low or when it notices that you forgot to plug it in over night.

FocusElectric dashboard screens

Dashboard of the Focus Electric



11:01 am