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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.

Yet it's not a big stretch to imagine a near future when people will evaluate a car's app ecosystem the same way they would for any other mobile device. If the car doesn't support the apps users want, they might choose another car that does. "Ford and GM understand that the connected lifestyle is in the car," says Boyadjis, "and they need to adapt to it."

With the OpenXC workshops (happening nationwide through TechShop), Ford is inviting developers to tinker freely. "Ford and GM are pioneering app development in the car in a way very different from the way that other automakers have approached it," says Boyadjis. "They literally are offering up their software and their reference platforms."

"Automakers have always developed technology in-house or with a vendor, which can take years," says Consumer Advice Editor Ron Montoya. "Open source will allow Ford to innovate and test technology at a faster clip."

How to build a car app
Back at TechShop in San Francisco, the circuit boards we've built will drive a tachometer-like Retro Gauge, fitted with a plastic housing and needle made by 3D printers onsite. The Retro Gauge serves as a display for various OpenXC apps, providing real-time visual feedback on everything from engine RPMs to your steering wheel angle.

OpenXC has two primary components: an Android app that you develop, and a hardware interface that plugs into the OBD-II (on-board diagnostics) port of a car. The interface uses Bluetooth to send data to the laptop or Android tablet running the OpenXC app. The Retro Gauge attaches to the laptop or tablet via USB.

The guinea pig for our apps and gauges is a Ford Focus Electric car parked nearby. Ford researchers Giuli and Aich provide some simple apps for developers to use if they haven't finished their own yet. With one of the apps, for instance, developers could turn the car's steering wheel and see the wheel's angle display on the LED readout on the Retro Gauge.

Ford's OpenXC Platform Web site currently lists 19 kinds of data that can be read by an OpenXC app, including transmission torque, windshield wiper status, and fuel level.

When asked whether additional data would become available, Giuli answers, "hell, yes." He's as eager as the rest of us are. "This is research that allows us to make a bold set of statements," Giuli says. "We're going to make this open source, expose the data." It's a statement that definitely takes Ford out of its comfort zone as a corporation, Giuli adds: "Even taking data out of the car is a huge argument [within Ford]."


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