Cars are smartphones now. At least--as with cell phones before them--cars are becoming increasingly linked-in and integral to our digital Matrix lives. That's perhaps why it wasn't all that surprising that Ford's EVP of Global Marketing, James Farley, didn't use his keynote address at the opening day of the New York International Auto Show to announce some line extension or new braking system, but rather to introduce a mobile app competition.
Specifically, Farley used his prime showcase slot to announce the company's $50,000 Personalized Fuel-Efficiency App Challenge. Ford wants developers to cook up apps that will help customers optimize their personal fuel-economy performance. But what's noteworthy is that the apps won't use humans as a medium to enter information; rather they will utilize data directly from the cars themselves via OpenXC, a vehicle-specific API. OpenXC creates data out of parameters such as steering wheel angle, GPS, and brake pedal status and can share it directly with an Android device or to the Web.
The platform has only been around for a little over a year, but OpenXC has already been used to create apps that alert drivers to local rain by combining data from Weather Underground and the car's GPS, or ones that reflect LEDs off the windshield to present heads-up information directly to the driver.
But these basic sorts of applications are only the beginning.
Hitting the road with Skynet
Ford shared the keynote stage with representatives from Facebook and Google, who talked about how integrated vehicles will increase social interactions and seamlessly interact with our digital lives.
Doug Frisbie, Facebook's head of automotive global marketing who also joined Farley onstage, described a near future where cars will use and convey crowd-sourced traffic information or play a radio station that only has tunes recommended by friends.
Looking slightly further ahead, Google's Brendon Kraham (pictured up top) told the crowd that this continued smushing of data and vehicle will feed even more data into predictive software like Google Now, and present real-time recommendations of where and how we drive based on our past activity. Even further into the future, it's easy to see how similar technologies will underpin the behavior of automated, driverless cars.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, we can find real effects of the connected, open-source car even today. For example, In the recent dust-up between electric car maker Tesla and The New York Times, the car manufacturer was able to refute claims made by a reporter who penned a negative review of a test drive by publishing data logs of the car's trip. The Times was forced to issue a partial mea culpa.
This type of location-aware ability will also affect how parents monitor their teenager's activities outside the house or employers peeking in on their employees on the road. Aside from privacy issues inherent in location-aware tech, there is the possibility (really, the probability) that these automotive technologies will be used for nefarious purposes. As anything becomes increasingly intelligent, it also becomes increasingly corruptible. This is particularly concerning in light of the recent spate of hacks organized on a global scale.
While drivers will find many benefits of a Web-enabled ride, nobody wants their car to become the plaything of a bored teenager somewhere in Eastern Europe.
Technology's march is as inevitable as it is unstoppable; our cars--along with everything else in our lives--will only become increasingly connected. Smartphones let us carry the Web with us everywhere, and smart cars will mean that even behind the wheel, we're still plugged in.