07 May 2010

Ford Hits the Road with 'Caravan' App

PC World

Cloud computing will take the place of CB radios this month when Ford Motor leads a subcompact convoy across the U.S. and demonstrates Caravan Track, an application developed by students at the University of Michigan.

Caravan Track was the winning project from a Ford-sponsored Michigan course in which students wrote applications to help travelers. On May 14, a team of Ford engineers and the four students who developed Caravan Track will leave the university and drive two Ford Fiestas, both equipped with the software, to the Maker Faire hobbyist event in San Mateo, California, on May 22. Ford dubbed the trip American Journey 2.0 and will use it to showcase Ford-developed software as well as the students' work.

Caravan Track lets people share route and vehicle information and coordinate stops as they travel in groups of cars, the kind of communication that once was done over short-distance CB (citizen's band) radios. But the Caravan Track development team wasn't trying to emulate that traditional communication tool of U.S. truckers, who broadcast over shared channels and identify themselves with clever handles. The students thought of the application as an alternative to cell phones.

"Calling between cars can be a hassle sometimes, so we figured this might make things a bit easier," said John Ciccone, a member of the development team, who just graduated from Michigan with a bachelor's degree in computer science.

With Caravan Track, users sign up online to join a trip with friends, much like joining a Facebook group. The leader of the trip supplies a four-digit code that allows each participant to log in. Routes to all planned meeting points and the final destination are automatically generated for each car. Once on the road, all the participants can share data from each of their cars, such as speed, location and fuel level. Caravan Track can also provide information on nearby restaurants and gas stations with the click of a button.

Users can send text messages between the cars to coordinate activities. To make things easier, there are prepared messages, such as "We should stop at the next rest area," that can be initiated with one click and played over the speakers in the other cars, as demonstrated in a video about the software. Some features of Caravan Track can be used hands-free with voice commands, while others are accessed through a touch screen with a simple, one-level interface, Ford said. It is designed to be used by drivers and passengers together, and one of the aims of the project is to determine what is the best type of interface to use.

The application was written in C#, and the students used a special Ford development platform called Fiestaware and Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio. Fiestaware gave them access to data from the car's own systems, such as fuel level and speed. For its initial demonstration, the application will run on an Intel-based Windows 7 PC with a custom-designed touch screen. But most of the computing will take place in the cloud, with the client software just sending data to the project's server, which then sends the information on to the other cars in the caravan. The Sprint Nextel 3G network will carry the data.

"The footprint is pretty small for our application. It shouldn't require too much memory or processing power, especially given that in an average caravan, there aren't too many vehicles," Ciccone said.

The application is just a demonstration of what types of software could help drivers in the future, with no date for commercial availability, said Ford spokesman Alan Hall.

Other programs developed in the Michigan class included an audio social-media service with spoken reviews of destinations by other consumers, a crowd-sourcing platform for sharing information about road hazards, and a carpool coordination tool that uses social networking and rates the driver and rider's compatibility on a scale.

The Michigan class and American Journey 2.0 are part of a broader effort by Ford to better link its vehicles to digital technologies. Last month, Ford announced Ford Sync AppLink, coming later this year, which lets smartphone software developers integrate their applications with the Sync hands-free in-car entertainment system. The American Journey project is not directly related to AppLink, Hall said.

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