Ford is taking a road trip to Maker Faire to show off what it hopes will be the next step in mobile connectivity — cloud-based in-car apps that, among other things, allow a car to Tweet from the road.
The tweeting car was one of two Ford Fiestas that left Dearborn, Michigan today bound for the Silicon Valley DIY festival. The cars are linked via Caravan Track, a cloud-based app designed by University of Michigan students, and other experimental applications.
“We believe this is the first time vehicles will be socially connected through the Internet during a cross-country trip,” T.J. Giuli, a Ford research engineer, said. The apps, he added, “really explore new boundaries in the use of digital tools to expand social links.”
And let a car share its feelings via Twitter.
But first, a word about Caravan Track. It is one of six applications developed during “Cloud Computing in the Commute,” a 12-week course Ford launched with the university. The purpose of the course is to help shape the future of in-car connectivity and bring the cloud to the car. Ford is especially interested in using social networks to improve how drivers interact with their vehicles and provide them with more useful information. Ford calls the campaign, and the road trip, “American Journey 2.0.”
“It’s an effort to explore the new frontiers of connectivity,” said Venkatesh Prasad, head of the infotronics team at Ford Research and Advanced Engineering. “It’s about the confluence of the social networking of human beings and the social networking of machines.”
University of Michigan students Collin Hockey, John Ciccone, Joe Phillips and Sangmi Park created Caravan Track. It allows a group of vehicles track each other’s locations, speed and direction; plot, share and update routes; and alert each other to stops along the way or hazards on the road. All of this can be done via a multiple-choice interface (shown above) that eliminates the need to type a text or dial a phone.
'Auto'matic Blog. Because every car should be able to tweet its emotions.
Ford’s in-house computer geeks developed three other apps:
“Auto”matic Blog. You knew it would come to this — the car, @AJtheFiesta, will blog or tweet from the road using info gleaned from various vehicle data sensors and engine computer codes (stuff the car already has anyway). Zipping along a winding road? The car might tweet that it’s having fun. Slogging through rush-hour traffic with the wipers on? The car will let the world know it’s not at all happy. “Either way, we wanted to allow the car to become a blogger, ” Giuli said.
Local Search is perhaps the most practical app. Whenever the car stops, it will check in with FourSquare to identify where it is and search for local restaurants, gas stations and parks. Looking further ahead, Prasad sees such an application gleaning reviews of local restaurants, businesses and so forth from sources like Yelp.
Virtual Road Rally is essentially a game. Users can define points of interest, and the app will reveal information about those points as the cars reach them. You can also compete against other people by outlining parameters for a specific drive such as achieving the best fuel economy and let drivers post their “score.” Don’t laugh — Nissan’s already got something like this in Japan. It sounds gimmicky, but Prasad sees potential for an augmented reality application that would provide real-time info about points of interest and the like.
Of course, anyone with a smart phone can already these things. Prasad says moving these functions to your dashboard simplifies the process.
“Why not reduce the steps and go directly to the cloud?” he said. “As we look into the future, what’s next in connectivity is reducing a step that takes six or seven steps and reducing it to one, or maybe even making it as simple as asking your car a question.”
Ford isn’t alone in exploring in-car connectivity and several major automakers are bringing the Web to our wheels. But few have pursued the technology with the same zeal as Ford. It has made connectivity a cornerstone of its lineup with Sync, and with good reason. Twenty-something buyers — the so-called Millenials — and all those new teenage drivers expect it.
Microsoft’s “Millennials in Automotive Survey 2009” found 77 percent of respondents use social networking sites and 64 percent visit them daily. What’s more, millennials will comprise 28 percent of the driving population this year, a nine-point increase from 2004. That’s one reason Ford used social networking to sell the Fiesta and the Fusion.
“We can’t ignore this,” Prasad said. “It isn’t going away. The sooner we make this an enabling technology, the better off we’ll be. We haven’t even begun to tap the power of the Internet as a moving technology.”
The tweeting car aside, Prasad said this technology isn’t about giving you another gadget or letting your update your Facebook page from I-95. Ford wants to use “social networking personal transportation apps” to tailor information coming into your car to suit your needs and desires.
“This is not another box in the car or more buttons and knobs on the dashboard,” he said. “This is like adding another radio channel, but a radio channel that is tailored specifically to you.”
For now, it’s a channel only the eight people making the road trip to Maker Faire can receive. There’s no timeline for when, or if, any of this will be available through Sync.
AJ the Tweeting Fiesta waits to hit the highway headed to Maker Faire.