Ford, Bug Labs Team Up To Develop Open-Source Car Connectivity Tools

Cars have come a long way since the Model T. Technology now allows your car to play music off your iPhone, to tell you how to parallel park, and to alert you when you’re about to bump into a shopping cart as you’re backing out. If Ford and New York City-based Bug Labs have anything to say about it, your car will soon be able to do much more: compare your fuel economy to that of your friends, measure your biometrics as your drive, or even alert you to the presence of allergens in the air.

“Think of the car of the future as a mobile computer on wheels, and these are the attachments,” says Peter Semmelhack, founder and CEO of Bug Labs. “The idea is a crowd-sourced, bottom-up approach.”

The two companies announced this week that they will team up in a joint development project to research and distribute open-source developer tools to advance in-car connectivity innovation. Known as “OpenXC,” the research platform will transform the car into a docking station for interchangeable plug-and-play hardware and software modules. Functions change with the addition or deletion of modules, giving owners the freedom to continually customize their vehicles.

Last week, at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, the two companies demonstrated a socially-networked in-car fuel economy monitor that connected to the Internet via BUGswarm, Bug Labs’ cloud-based service.

“The crowd was made up of VCs, geeks, and bloggers, and the response was terrific,” Semmelhack says. “We didn’t go in expecting to hit any metrics, but we’ve already been approached by investors.”

Turning developers loose on open-source tools is a win-win proposition, Semmelhack says. “Ford isn’t saddled with R&D costs, and the community gets what it wants by customizing the content.”

The idea was spawned after K. Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader of Ford Research and Innovation, traveled to India and noticed that while most people couldn’t yet afford a car, they did have cell phones with significant functionality. He started thinking about how to offer consumers a luxury car experience at a compact car price.

“Virtually everyone carried phones rich in locally relevant features,” Prasad said. “So, the challenge became how can we deliver similarly relevant and affordable connectivity inside the car.”

Imagine you live in India, Prasad says, own a Ford car and love the game of cricket. You would be able to purchase a $30 community cricket module from your Ford dealer that was designed by a local developer and approved by Ford. This module, plugged into a master control board in your car, 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.

“We’re giving the best tool kits that we know of today to developers and allowing them create what they want, while at the same time paying careful attention to things like automobile safety and customer satisfaction” Prasad says.

Ford is the first automotive OEM to collaborate with Bug Labs, a company that Semmelhack founded in 2006 as a way for individuals and companies to break traditional barriers associated with new hardware development. Though the company has already pioneered the SYNC connectivity system, the collaboration with Bug Labs represents a paradigm shift for a company whose CEO recently said he wants to Ford become a tech company that happens to sell automobiles.

“We’re definitely leading the charge,” Prasad says. “We want to make life better for the consumer without compromising safety.”

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