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Ford uses hackathons to develop connected car technology

Ford has been hosting hackathons in service to its Sync AppLink smartphone application connectivity technology, and they have already paid dividends in the form of experiments with brands such as IBM Watson.
The Sync AppLink technology has done wonders for opening up Ford?s vehicles to applications for connected platforms, including mobile payments for fuel, navigation, wearables integration and other capabilities. Many of the varied usages of the Sync AppLink tech emerged as products of partnerships with high-profile brands, such as ExxonMobil, Samsung, DriverScore and Dash Radio.

"Hackathons showcase just how easy it is to use the Sync AppLink platform to integrate apps with our in-vehicle voice commands and displays," said Doug VanDagens, director of connected service solutions at Ford. "It?s a great way to introduce the Ford Developer Program to app developers and give them access and tools to bring their apps to an entirely new market. 

"These hackathons have produced some great ideas and several have gone on to become products."

Sync AppLink
The hackathons are meant to familiarize Ford?s Developer Program to software programmers who do not necessarily work under the Ford banner, and the events are a way to integrate important contributions to Ford?s consumer-facing technical advancement for essentially pennies on the dollar: last year?s hackathon offered $20,000 in prizes and publicity for winners, a negligible sum compared to the margins gained from implementation of the technology, or even the salaries of the employees executing on winners? ideas. 

In any case, Ford has been fortunate enough to reap immense benefits from the hackathons for its products. The winner from last year?s hackathon did so by leveraging IBM Watson technology to create an in-car digital assistant for individuals who organize their days around their phones but do not want to use them while driving. 

While still in a prototype stage, the results of the application sound promising. 

Drivers can control the Watson app using their vehicle?s touch screen, steering wheel controls and voice capability. If developed into a consumer offering, it could ultimately serve as an in-vehicle assistant that addresses requests ranging from ?What?s the weather like?? to ?What?s on my calendar?? to ?Where?s the nearest restaurant??

The Watson app also uses the voice pass-through capabilities of AppLink and other Sync tools that provide access to vehicle fuel level: when fuel is low, the app issues a verbal alert and suggests nearby gas stations along the vehicle route. 

And speaking of fueling up, another application that leverages Sync AppLink technology comes out of a collaboration between Ford and ExxonMobil that introduced a new e-commerce app, Speedpass+, n automated payment system where drivers can use voice commands to search for and find participating Exxon Mobil stations, as well as pay for fuel.

Mobile applications
Other applications include Driverscore, app that creates a personalized driving score based on individual driving behavior that can lead to lower insurance rates; Dash Radio, a commercial-free radio platform; and wearables integration with Samsung Gear S2 and S3 smartwatches that offer convenient parking and alerts that help them remain attentive in the car.

The connected route is a good way for Ford to stay competitive, as newsworthy as the company has been recently for politicized media coverage of its manufacturing maneuvers. And despite the hackathons it runs bordering on the exploitative, Ford?s mission to deliver on a connected driving experience is a good investment, and hopefully one that will expand to fully compensate those that generate the ideas just as much as those that execute on them.

"We believe voice commands should be the primary means to control devices and service while in the car and Sync AppLink makes it easy for mobile app developers to voice-enable their apps," Mr. VanDagens said.