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Ford begins paving the way to a modular motoring world with launch of OpenXC platform

2013 Ford Fusion

One of the most remarkable characteristics of mobile devices is the sheer amount of ingenious apps they’ve spawned. Many apps rely on the native hardware found on the device they’re running on, while others mine information from the vehicle itself. These few apps already do a good job of utilizing information from a vehicle, but full access to this data is generally fenced off and manufacturer specific. To help open up this isolated system, Ford launched a beta version last year of its OpenXC project. The open source project supplies both hardware and software SDKs to aspiring developers, granting access to vehicle metrics for a car’s internal systems. Now, Ford is moving its project from beta to full on release.

As Ford’s research lab leader at the company’s Silicon Valley Lab, TJ Giuli, told us this week, OpenXC is squarely aimed at the development community. “It’s kind of a tough message that we’ve gone back and forth with. How do we communicate this right? Basically AppLink and Sync are our in-production technology, so if you’re an app developer that kind of wants to actually see your app and go deploy it into over a million Ford vehicles, and potentially make money, you go with Applink, but as a research platform OpenXC is able to evolve much more quickly.”

Ford and GM have already begun courting the creative crowd by laying out their in-car app strategies, both of which involve giving developers easy access to software SDKs. In truth, however, the recent announcements really amount to tools for software developers looking to commercialize their apps and, as Guili points out, utilize existing vehicle hardware.

Ford OpenXC

Of course the whole OpenXC platform is dependent on data from the vehicle, which is nearly impossible for developers to access on their own. As Guili explains, “Right now the platform is based on Android and what we do is we plug into the OBD II port and read all the sensor data and all the engine performance runtime, powertrain information coming across the internal vehicle networks and translate it from an obscure Ford format into a Ford independent open standard.”

But not all data can be pulled by using OBD II, and what Guili and his team are looking to provide developers is a deeper level of metrics. “OBD II is a common set of federally mandated protocol messages across all the OEMS, but we actually get deeper than that, stuff that isn’t required in the OBD spec, says Guili.

One of the interesting applications Guili recalled working on was a car that could tweet its mood. As he recalled, “I was involved in this project called American Journey 2.0, and one of the things we did was we made a tweeting car. We kinda gave the car almost an emotional persona, so there were things it liked and didn’t liked, kind of a rudimentary emotional model of the car so if it does things that it likes then it gets happy and actually tweets happy tweets, and so one of the things it liked was fun drives. And so we were able to, by looking at the steering wheel angle and the rate of change of the steering wheel angle, the accelerator and pedal position, engine RPMs and speed, was figure out that you’re really going on this curvy road and then it [the car] actually takes a GPS trace of where you’re going and then tweets a Google map that says “hey I did this awesome drive and my average speed was this.”

OpenXC architecture

Currently OpenXC is Android based, but Guili was quick to point out that this doesn’t limit developers from porting it to other systems. “Right now we’re running on Android but because it’s an open source project, as long as you know the format of the data that’s coming out you can write your own API and the community can port it to Windows, they can port it to whatever.”

Software is only one component though, and it’s clear hardware is going to play a large role in OpenXC’s future. Because Ford is releasing information like physical CAD models, electrical schematics, and board layouts, the opportunity for developers to build upon Ford’s existing hardware is not only viable, it’s encouraged. As Guili pointed out to us, the open source nature of the project encourages modification and in turn, innovation.

Down the road, apps aren’t the only aspects of the vehicle that could be introduced. Indeed, OpenXC lays down the framework for a modular vehicle, one in which customers could utilize to continually upgrade their vehicle, similar to how they upgrade their smartphone. So say your nav system is obsolete in a year, you could potentially swap out the entire head unit at the dealership for another, opening up a greater deal of choices and bringing added value to a car that may have otherwise depreciated over time. Of course Guili points out that bigger components, like a vehicle’s engine or chassis, won’t be able to be swapped out.

While in-car apps and autonomous vehicles are busy occupying the limelight, it’s fascinating to see where the automotive industry is headed — and by opening up the creative process to thousands of creative minds across the globe, the sky may very well be the limit.

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