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How tech nerds will write the next generation of car apps

Melissa Riofrio | Aug. 15, 2013
In workshops and hackathons across the country, automakers court developers to help innovate on car apps.

We've gathered in a converted warehouse in San Francisco's trendy South of Market neighborhood, home to some of biggest names in tech. Sitting at long work benches, we bend over small circuit boards with soldering guns, attaching chips and transistors while trying not to singe ourselves--or the electronics.

It may not look like it, but we're developing car apps, and we're starting from scratch. TJ Giuli and Sudipto Aich, two researchers from Ford Motor Company's Silicon Valley Lab, are showing me and a roomful of software developers how to use OpenXC, an open-source (Linux-based) platform created by Ford for developing in-dash software.

OpenXC is meant purely "for rapid prototyping and do-it-yourself exploration," Giuli says. Unlike the SYNC infotainment platform in Ford cars, which has its own API and app development process, OpenXC is designed to encourage developers to experiment with car apps that Ford itself would never dare imagine. According to Giuli, Ford needed to "create a system that allows individuals to do something completely different than we ever would have thought of, or intended to do."

The individuals at the workshop have intentions, all right. They pepper Aich and Giuli with questions about how far OpenXC could push into the car.

"Can we get into the infotainment system?"

No, says Giuli. "Infotainment systems are typically the most complex and powerful computers in a car, and so typically if you're doing it right there's a ton of security around it." Darn.

"The data traffic is one way?" asked another.

"Yes," says Giuli.

"So what's the point?"

"There's quite a lot you can do with just knowing what the car can do in real time," Giuli counters. Still, more than one attendee looks visibly disappointed.

Apps develop faster than cars do
Automakers know they have an app challenge. As they design cars to be more connected--with infotainment systems, with people's smartphones, and with direct cellular service--drivers will naturally begin treating their cars like any other mobile device. They'll want to personalize it. They'll want to interact with it. And they'll want to use apps with it.

The fast, adventuresome world of app development doesn't mesh well with the slower, careful world of automobile development. "These companies don't make apps, they sell cars," says Mark C. Boyadjis, Senior Analyst and Manager at IHS, referring to Ford and GM, the most progressive companies when it comes to app development. Saddled with the responsibility of designing safe, reliable vehicles, automakers can take several years for new technology to see the light of day. That's eons in app time.

The automakers move cautiously for a reason, of course: If you download a bad app and it bricks your phone, it's simply annoying. But if you download a bad app and it bricks your car, it's potentially a deadly mistake.


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