Cars need open innovation and apps

The other day when going to a meeting with a car maker client, I was a little early. So I went to the newsstand to browse magazines and ended up taking Fortune with me because of a small article titled “An App Store For Autos” (I just couldn’t resist).

In the article, the author suggests car makers a more open approach to software integration – after all, software is not what car making is about, so why not let others do that?

Audi and Mercedes have entered into collaborations with Bang & Olufsen to provide hi-end car-fi for the luxury segment’s audio experience, so integrating widget type features would seem only a small step away?

Open innovation

They seem to have gotten the message already at Ford, whose SYNC system (developed with Microsoft on their Microsoft Auto platform) is enabling synchronization with the driver’s media player and mobile phone, as well as offering traffic information. The news is that Ford is now opening up their development platform to embrace a model of open innovation.

In a statement, Ford says:

“The auto industry has long operated within a walled garden, with very little input from outsiders. The technology industry, on the other hand, continues to push the boundaries of innovation, and the result is a thriving industry that is delivering breakthrough technologies to customers.”

Letting people outside the industry join in development is a natural first step. Rethinking the in-car connectivity platform would seem the logical next.

In a way it’s similar to the discussion about the future of mobile services: Should mobile services be embedded in a browser (across platforms), or should they come as nifty, branded applications (for the individual platform)?

The way I see it, car makers should not be content with synchronizing people’s gadgets. They should provide enhanced in-car experiences with the help of open innovation – much like what we see on mobile platforms like iPhone and Android today (and what Ford is now spearheading with the University of Michigan collaboration).

With the expected surge in mobile broadband and data consumption and – not least – affordable data plans, there is a future lined up for in-car experiences that gets its juice from the cloud (check this PUGcast post for some interesting reflections on Cisco’s forecast) and functionality from in-car widgets. Cars will be able to connect with the environment, with other vehicles – and with the apps in these other vehicles.

A heads up windshield display from the not-so-distant-future, imagined by Wired

A heads up windshield display from the not-so-distant-future, imagined by Wired

The connected car

The Fortune article discusses ideas for apps that could be used e.g. to protect (limit?) certain drivers – say an old (or young!) family member, but why not extend the thought? With the car connected to the internet we can begin to look at it “as a node in a network,” as a recent Economist article wrote. I would be able to sync my car – not with my phone or music device, but with my entire music library, my contact lists, as well as those countless other services that belong to my online existence – e.g. my social graph that could be integrated with yet other services into the (soon to come) heads up display that will be the next generation windshield.

Not only would I be able to stay connected whilst on the road; I would also be able to enhance this experience with the integration of e.g. location based services, augmented systems to let me look around the corner through walls (as this post shows – online surveillance footage could be feeding this?), suggested routes (based on my preferences for landscape/shopping/gas/traffic the car would harvest from the surroundings), Google maps (with its new navigation app, needless to say) and of course: Fully integrated (geo tagged) social networking.

If the car industry has too long development cycles to make this happen (as recently suggested by BusinessWeek), leave it to others and the after-market, but please let us have a common platform this time!

What do you think?

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