Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, November 5, 2009

U-M, Ford collaborate on what’s next for in-car connectivity

Ford Motor Co. and U-M are working together to discover the next frontier of in-car-communications.

In a Winter Semester class called “Cloud Computing in the Commute,” students will test and program new applications to help model the future of in-car communications and potential new capabilities of Ford SYNC.

SYNC, co-developed with Microsoft, integrates a variety of technologies providing emergency, diagnostic and information services as well as traffic reports and directions — all through a user’s Bluetooth-paired mobile phone. Current technologies include an on-board text-to-speech engine, data-over-voice technology, a GPS receiver, and an off-board routing engine and information services network accessed through a voice portal.

Ford is giving students access to a developmental operating system to facilitate this joint project called the “American Journey 2.0.” The project is aimed at finding new ways to harness the power of social networks and cloud computing to deliver the road trip of the future, Ford officials say.

The first phase of the project, currently under way in the College of Engineering, involves beta testing a Ford prototype in-vehicle connectivity software platform that supports navigation, cell phone and digital music players. The platform also has the enhanced ability to access vehicle performance data and act as an interface for newly developed social networking applications.

“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,” says Venkatesh Prasad, group and technical leader of Ford’s Infotronics team in Research & Advanced Engineering. “We want the students to get creative and develop ways to responsibly connect the car to communicate and share with the outside world.”

Teaching the winter class will be Jason Flinn and Brian Noble, associate professors in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“Research like this pushes the envelope of current technology and helps us identify and solve the next set of challenges in the evolving arena of vehicle connectivity,” Flinn says. “What excites me about this project is that it gives our students the opportunity to unleash their creativity using cutting-edge technologies to find the best ways to connect the vehicle and the ‘cloud.’”

It’s expected that social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter will be part of the next breakthrough in connected cars, the researchers say. Noble also envisions a smarter car that can give the driver instantaneous feedback on gas mileage and other vehicle attributes. But the professors are leaving this up to the students.

“We don’t know what the killer app is, so we’re telling them to go build something really cool,” Noble says. “It’s an awesome project because we are working on the bleeding edge, able to add our knowledge, insight and interests that could have real-world impact on how we drive, and how our commutes impact the environment and each other.”

The winter course will be open to 25-30 students of multiple disciplines, and will feature small teams collaborating on the Ford developmental software platform and building upon its connectivity capabilities with new applications.

A panel of judges from Ford, U-M, Microsoft, Maker Faire and others will pick the winning application set at the end of the course. The chosen student team will install their new connectivity programs in a specially prepared 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.