Ford And Bug Labs Build Open-source R&D Platform For In-car Connectivity
September 13, 2011

Ford And Bug Labs Team Up For In-car Connectivity


Ford Motor Company and open-source hardware and software provider Bug Labs announced a joint development agreement on Monday to collaborate on a new in-car research platform that allows third-party developers to build open-source products that interact with Ford's Sync system.

The companies showcased a prototype of the new platform, called OpenXC, during the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco on Monday, using a Ford Fiesta as the demonstration vehicle. The prototype included a socially-networked fuel economy application that uses Bug Labs´ cloud-based, data aggregation and application development platform BUGswarm. The app includes a Bluetooth-enabled LED fuel efficiency display module in the vehicle´s cockpit.  When powered, the app illuminates the windshield with a small digital display indicating how fuel efficiently someone is driving.

“OpenXC is about creating a platform that is totally accessible to the developer community and quickly incorporates local market needs to offer innovative solutions at an affordable price point,” said K. Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader, Infotronics, Ford Research and Innovation.

“The platform is designed to help us answer the question of how Ford can accelerate the car connectivity experience around the globe, at a value proposition, for both mature and emerging markets.”

In a statement, Ford and New York City-based Bug Labs said their partnership would explore “the next frontier in how to make connectivity more available, affordable and personalized” for drivers.

“Based on Bug Labs´ groundbreaking Bug System, OpenXC transforms the car into a plug-and-play platform where interchangeable open-source hardware and software modules can be quickly and easily customized to perform tasks deemed previously unimaginable by developers,” the companies said in a press release about their agreement.

The vision for OpenXC is to have the car become a docking station for Bug Labs´ interchangeable plug-and-play modules programmed with only the connectivity features and services the driver wants, Ford said.  Some of these features include visual and audio feedback interfaces, environmental sensors and safety devices that can be implemented quickly by snapping Bug Labs´ hardware modules directly into Ford vehicles.

Since functions change with the addition or deletion of modules, owners have the flexibility to continually customize their experience affordably, adding value to their vehicles as new technologies are introduced, purchased and “plugged” in.

“Combining open, modular hardware and software innovation with the next generation of vehicles reinforces Ford´s position as the world´s automotive technology leader,” said Bug Labs founder and CEO Peter Semmelhack.

Ford said its researchers hope that lessons learned through OpenXC will help prepare the company for unique market conditions around the world, such as diverse local languages and dialects, fast-changing content preferences, and the need for affordable “buy as you can” or even rental app solutions. 

For Bug Labs, involvement in OpenXC signifies a paradigm shift in the way that automotive companies explore new ways to meet growing consumer demands.

The idea of OpenXC grew out of a trip Prasad made to India, where he noticed that while most people couldn´t yet afford a car, they did have affordable feature phones with significant functionality.

“Virtually everyone carried phones rich in locally relevant features such as an LED flashlight and applications such as an astrological almanac — all for a cost of about $40,” Prasad said.

“So, the challenge became how can we deliver similarly relevant and affordable connectivity inside the car.”

“Imagine you live in India, own a Ford Figo and love the game of cricket,” Prasad said.

“Now imagine that you could purchase a $30 community cricket module from your local Ford dealer that was designed by a local developer and approved by Ford. This module plugs into a master control board in your car and your Figo would then play a community radio channel dedicated to cricket for the season. After the season is over, you could remove the module and replace it with something else.”“¨

The OpenXC platform is designed to give Ford researchers and independent developers a platform to experiment with minimal investment, where ideas, concepts and theories for in-car connectivity can be shared, tested and verified, the two companies said.

“Open innovation platforms give communities globally the power to customize and personalize their products,” said Bug Labs´ Semmelhack.

“As an added benefit, it also frees manufacturers, like Ford, from investing in, building and deploying low-volume highly customized vehicles for specific markets — while opening up opportunities for other manufacturers to create value-added products and services for Ford vehicles.”

While the OpenXC platform shows much potential for Ford in emerging markets, where a low-cost value connectivity solution is critical, the concept is also giving Ford the freedom to explore other business models as well, such as distribution, developer resources and app stores.

“We have given connectivity to millions of drivers with SYNC, but we know that one size does not fit all and that limiting ourselves to one connectivity model is not going to sustain us going forward,” said Prasad.

Automotive connectivity holds significant opportunity for automakers, with potential future global vehicle sales estimated to reach nearly 110 million units per year by 2020 -- a 30-million increase from today.
Asia represents the largest growth potential, with nearly 20 million more units expected to be sold in 2020 compared with 2011, according to IHS Automotive.


On the Net: