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Ford, U-M students send socially-connected Fiestas on cross-country roadtrip, aim to become Mayor of the USA

Ford, U-M students send socially-connected Fiestas on cross-country roadtrip, aim to become Mayor of the USA
Donald Melanson
Donald Melanson|@donmelanson|May 14, 2010 2:36 PM
Ford is certainly no stranger to internet-connected cars, but it looks like it's now truly stepped up its game with a little help from some University of Michigan students, who have teamed up to send two Fiestas on a socially-networked, cross-country road trip. The two cars (part of the American Journey 2.0 project) apparently each pack a similar trunk-full of gear -- including both WiMAX and EV-DO modems, and a 2.6 GHz PC with an 80GB SSD hard drive -- and they'll each be testing out a number of different applications developed by Ford and the students. Those include the UMich-developed Caravan app, which allows the two cars to communicate with each other during the trip, and three different Ford-developed social networking apps, which will let the cars blog and tweet their progress and, yes, even check in on Foursquare each time they make a stop. Head on past the break for the complete press release, and be sure to hit up the Autoblog link below for a closer look at the cars themselves.
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* Ford's American Journey 2.0 research project concludes with first-ever social media-connected road trip from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Maker Faire in San Mateo, Calif.; Ford engineers, University of Michigan (U-M) students demonstrate first-ever auto-centric cloud-based apps
* Ford-developed apps include "Auto"matic Blog, which will allow the car, known as "@AJtheFiesta," to periodically tweet its interpretation of the journey based on vehicle telemetrics; another app will automatically check-in the team via Foursquare at stops and points-of-interest
* The road trip involves stops at three major universities; each serves as part of a larger Ford effort to excite potential customers while showing tangible proof of the company's commitment to leading the convergence of the automobile and Internet through open innovation

ANN ARBOR, Mich., May 12, 2010 – Two Ford Fiestas will leave the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on May 13, and though the cars may be separate, they will be linked to each other and to the entire global community in ways that mark a new era in mobile connectivity.

Embarking upon a week-long road trip to Maker Faire, Silicon Valley's annual ideas festival, the Fiestas and their occupants will be serving as messengers from Ford announcing the arrival of the car as a technology platform.

"The car is the ultimate mobile device," claims Venkatesh Prasad, group and technical leader of the Infotronics team in Ford Research & Advanced Engineering. "Ford has led the convergence of the auto and consumer electronics industries, and now we're researching how to responsibly and safely harness the Internet to enhance drivers' time behind the wheel."

In one Fiesta, Ford engineers T.J. Giuli, Joe Rork, Joe Ross and Tom Alexander will be demonstrating three experimental apps, known as Virtual Road Rally, "Auto"matic Blog and Local Search, developed by the Ford Research & Advanced Engineering and IT teams and built on top of an experimental Windows 7 and Microsoft Robotics application platform.

In the second Fiesta, U-M computer science students Collin Hockey, John Ciccone and Joe Phillips and School of Information student Sangmi Park will be using Caravan Track, an app they developed as part of a 12-week course called Cloud Computing in the Commute. Ford initiated the course to challenge students to develop social networking personal transportation apps. Caravan Track was judged the most compelling, out of six creative apps presented at the conclusion of the course, winning the students a trip to California with Ford engineers.

"We believe this is the first time vehicles will be socially connected through the Internet during a cross-country trip," said Giuli, Ford research engineer. "All the apps – from Caravan Track to the Virtual Road Rally, and particularly the notion of the car automatically posting its mood and location – really explore new boundaries in the use of digital tools to expand social links."

The road trip will signal the culmination of a yearlong Ford initiative called American Journey 2.0, a joint open innovation research project, supported by Microsoft and Intel, offering a group of U-M students a chance to define the future in-car experience.

About the Ford apps

The Ford team will be using three apps developed within the company's connected vehicle labs.

Virtual Road Rally allows users to define points-of-interest (POIs) or physical landmarks, similar to those found in a road rally. The app can take the form of a "treasure hunt," revealing information about various POIs as drivers reach them.

It can also serve as a competitive drive app, allowing users to post various parameters for a specific drive. For example, a user could post the amount of fuel they used driving from A to B, and challengers would attempt to best that mileage. The app uses a Web-based component to allow users to upload rally points and challenge parameters, as well as post their individual results.

Road Rally users could also create rallies focusing on their own towns, allowing drivers who may never have visited a particular place to learn more about landmarks and POIs. Such a feature would let drivers share their favorite drives and provide small towns and "off the beaten path" locations a new way to attract visitors to unique places.

"Auto"matic Blog attempts to elevate the car to its rightful standing as an equal member of the team, providing it with a personality and way to communicate its mood. The car itself, dubbed @AJtheFiesta, will automatically blog or tweet statements about the journey based on information it gathers from various vehicle data sensors or engine computer codes.

"For example, if one assumes that a happy car is one that's zipping along an open road or negotiating tight curves," explains Giuli, "the powertrain sensors – engine rpm, speed, steering inputs, g-loads, that sort of thing – can indicate to the car that it's in one of those fun situations, and the car can then indicate that with a tweet or blog post. Similarly, if it's at zero mph with the wipers on, the car might decide it's sitting in traffic in the rain and send a sad tweet. Either way, we wanted to allow the car to become a blogger."

AJ will also be able to indicate via GPS trace the roads on which it's driving when it feels certain ways, and the system will also allow it to take a photo to show other drivers – and perhaps, someday, other cars – the conditions that trigger its opinions.

Local Search uses a built-in social media component via the social networking app Foursquare. Each time the vehicle makes a stop, it will check in with Foursquare to identify the location, and it can also search for nearby restaurants, gas stations and parks.

Technology meets tradition

The Ford connected road trip is an outreach to two key demographics who will help shape
the future of Ford vehicles: Fiesta buyers, largely expected to be connected young Millennials like the U-M students and the crowds expected to greet them during their university stops; and budding app developers interested in the future of software development and mobile platforms.

At the same time, the journey hopes to harness the power of social networks and cloud computing to introduce a new twist to the great American road trip.

"The challenges faced by the students are representative of what the new era of developers will face as they begin programming the Internet-on-wheels, and what a new generation of customers will want from this technology," said Prasad. "We are creating tools for this new generation and we are learning as much as we can, while adapting to seeing things through the eyes of up-and-coming programmers."

A project like American Journey 2.0, involving teamwork with university students followed by hands-on testing, represents a significant developmental shift for Ford. The company is actively looking toward innovation hubs like universities and Silicon Valley to learn the best ways to deliver relevant and personalized content tailored for the individual driver's unique
in-car experience

"These collaborations are also valuable to Ford and our development ecosystem in the long term," added Prasad. "If we're going to lead in shaping tomorrow's world-on-wheels, we need a top talent pool from which to draw, and we need to be a catalyst to the entire value chain."

At the road trip's final destination, Maker Faire in San Mateo, Calif., May 22, the U-M students and Ford engineers will have the chance to share their work with global leaders in technology development.

"Maker Faire is where technology enthusiasts gather to see new projects and I know they'll be excited to think about the car as a technology platform and the new applications that can be built" said Dale Dougherty, editor and publisher of MAKE Magazine and founder of Maker Faire.

"This event is demonstrating that we at Ford do not view cars and trucks as just vehicles but as platforms for development," Giuli said. "Whether someone at Maker Faire is a car enthusiast or a techie or a programmer, we're inviting them to come interact with the vehicle and help us shape the future."
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