automotive

Ford Goes To College For On-Board Tech

Ford SYNC

Ford is letting Millennials create the next iteration of its in-vehicle media platform. The program at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, called "American Journey 2.0," puts Ford operating systems in front of students, who will ultimately create new social-media applications for so-called "cloud" computing.

The latter refers to Internet platforms like Ford's own Sync platform developed with Microsoft that -- like terminals in '70s-era mainframe computers -- serve as user interfaces for programs developed and hosted by third-party providers through the user's Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. Sync can thus offer things like emergency, diagnostic and information services, traffic, navigation, and other programs, and add new programs later, without making the owner buy a new system, since it's all done via a user's cell phone.

"Already with Sync, we have proven that we can access information in the 'cloud.' This research gives us the opportunity to harness the power of student innovation to explore beyond those capabilities and develop what's next," said Venkatesh Prasad, group and technical leader of Ford's Infotronics team in Research & Advanced Engineering, in a release. "We want the students to get creative and develop ways to responsibly connect the car to communicate and share with the outside world."

Phase one of the project, which started this month, is a six-week "shakedown" of a prototype Sync-like platform. A small group of computer and electrical engineering students will beta-test the prototype, which supports navigation, cell phone and digital music players, and vehicle performance data as well as something new: social-networking apps like Facebook and Twitter.

The next phase will open the platform to 25 to 30 students of various disciplines working in teams to dream up and add new apps.

A panel of judges from Ford, University of Michigan, Microsoft, Maker Faire, and other professions will pick the winning application. The winning team will install the new gizmo in a Ford Fiesta for what Ford has dubbed the "American Journey 2.0," a group expedition to test and show off their efforts at the 2010 Maker Faire, the world's largest do-it-yourself convention held next spring in California.

Ford says the next generation of on-board programs, driven by Millennials, will be on-board access to social networks. Per Ford, The Microsoft "Millennials in Automotive Survey 2009" reported that 77% of those surveyed use social networking sites, 50% subscribed to more than one site; 64% frequented them daily; and 33% reported spending 30 minutes or more for each visit. In 2010, the Millennial will make up 28% of the driving population -- up 9 points from just 2004, making it a powerful consumer group to target.

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