Android Apps: Coming Soon to a Ford Near You

February 21, 2012
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Ford Logo

Android is already integrated in a wide range of devices besides the “conventional” smartphones and tablets that we know and love. The list of examples is long and includes home automation systems, various gadgets, appliances, and even vehicles. Google is a big supporter of this trend, having unveiled its Android @ Home initiative back in May 2011. Unfortunately, Google’s framework (based on Android and Arduino open source hardware) hasn’t produced yet any palpable results. All we have is a few cool concepts and ideas that everyone agree that should be transformed to reality, but no one dares to tackle.

With or without Google’s help, the Android-everywhere revolution is in full swing, and, somehow surprisingly, the automotive industry leads the way. Big carmakers, and especially the American Big Three, have long been criticized for moving too slowly when it comes to integrating new technology in their vehicles. But things are changing.

General Motors, Nissan, and other big names have created apps that let users lock their cars or check the gas using their Android smartphone. Tesla is fitting its electric sedan Model S with an Android-based infotainment system. BMW has established a venture fund to support startups that attempt to bring the intelligence of modern smartphones to the dashboard.

One of the most promising developments comes from Ford. With its OpenXC project, the 109-year company plans to finally enable 21st century drivers to interact with their cars in a better, more intelligent way.

Android + Arduino + Your Car

The OpenXC platform combines Android and Arduino to create a complete solution for providing smartphone-like functionality in automobiles. Arduino is the hardware equivalent of Android – an open source microcontroller board that makes it easy to control various devices, from lamps, to power tools, to cars.

Basically, OpenXC is an API for your car – a set of interfaces that let Android applications interact with a car’s internal systems. The software connection is made via a set of libraries, while the physical connectivity is enabled via an Arduino module fitted with an USB connection.

Arduino

Created in collaboration with New York-based development house Bug Labs, Ford’s OpenXC attempts to tackle one of the biggest challenges of integrating cutting-edge mobile tech into vehicles – the long product lifecycle of a car. According to Ford, the average car is used for 13 years, while the average smartphone is changed every 1.5-2 years. In addition, a new model takes years to design and build, so by the time a car reaches the end user, the mobile technology it incorporates is in most cases obsolete.

OpenXC deals with the issue of fast-changing mobile tech by enabling simple upgrading and interchangeability. With a small investment, virtually anyone can create a simple hardware module loaded with an Android interface that can be plugged into a vehicle to provide new functionality. The modules can detect various information, such as speed, steering wheel angle, GPS position, gas usage, and more. For example, an add-on module can analyze how you drive your car and upload the information to a smartphone app that shows how “green” is your driving style. Up until now, this kind of functionality required huge investments and a lot of time to deploy. With OpenXC, the process becomes almost trivial.

OpenXC is now in beta, first app released

On February 16, Ford and Bug Labs officially announced that the OpenXC has entered the beta stage. A select number of development companies and educational institutions, including MIT and Stanford, have received access to the program. India’s HCL Solutions has created the first true app/module based on OpenXC, a nifty tools that shares information about the location of your car with select contacts. For instance, the car can tell your family when it safely reaches a destination, or it can automatically send a warning message when it’s stuck in traffic.

If it lives up to its promise, OpenXC may dramatically change how we interact with our cars. By making it easy for the average developer to get information directly from a vehicle and by making cars “upgradable”, OpenXC has the potential to spark the most significant change in in-car technology in decades.

No matter how OpenXC turns out, Android enthusiasts have one big reason to be proud – Android is taking over the world.

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