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 That means the technology your car uses today will be outdated quickly if you can't upgrade it.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


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


U.S. Transportation Secretary: “There’s Absolutely No Reason for Any Person to Download Their Facebook Into the Car”

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Cars are becoming increasingly connected and there can be little doubt that this opens drivers up to all kinds of new distractions. Some new cars can now check your Facebook account and read updates out aloud. Others connect you to your personalized music stations on Pandora or let you browse through your locally stored music collection through one of the many little screens that now grace many cars instead of the traditional analog dials. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, however, thinks that all of these electronics are just too distracting and, according to the Wall Street Journal, is pressuring car manufacturers to minimize “gadgetry in new cars.” Indeed, LaHood told the Wall Street Journal that “there’s absolutely no reason for any person to download their Facebook into the car. It’s not necessary.”

While it would be easy to brand LaHood as a Luddite who doesn’t want people to “download their Facebook,” there can be little doubt that the car manufacturers haven’t yet figured out a way to smoothly integrate all of these new bells and whistles into the regular driving experience. Ford’s SYNC, for example, only allows drivers to access certain functions through voice control while the car is moving. These systems can be frustrating, however, as even the best voice recognition is still prone to making errors – which will likely distract the driver even more.

Given the long development cycles in the car industry, it will take a bit before we get advanced Internet-connected in-car infotainment systems that feel as integrated into the driving experience as today’s basic car radios. It’s not about Facebook, though.

There is no reason why a status update from Facebook that’s automatically streamed to your car should be any more distracting than listening to a morning zoo radio program. The car industry, sadly, hasn’t quite figured out how to do this, yet.



3:42 pm