Ford cars to become open-source crowd-enabled modular products

Lego Jeep Wrangler
It’s modular!

Only yesterday I was discussing with friends and colleagues potential impacts of 3D printing, how a number of trends and technology advances are combining to put us as the consumer at the centre of product experiences, providing us with unprecedented choice and the ability to co-create as active participants in the design, configuration and even the manufacturing of our purchases.

A coincidence then that up pops an article on RWW about how Ford is looking at cars becoming “open-source crowd-enabled modular products”.

“Let’s say you don’t like these steering wheel buttons. Maybe you could slap in a capacitive touch controller,” he said. “Using this platform, people would, by themselves, be able to design things.”

Tuned Pontiac console
Tuned Pontiac console

Nice idea I thought, but haven’t we been “tuning” cars forever? How does this differ? I’d like to be clear on what I mean by “tuning”, and once again Wikipedia’s definition serves our purpose:

“Car tuning is a generalized term referring to the act of improving the performance or appearance of a vehicle….. Most vehicles leave the factory set up for an average driver’s expectations and conditions, tuning on the other hand, has become a way to personalize the characteristics of a vehicle to the owner’s preference”

D7K_1835
Sparkly Merc

Sounds pretty similar, so what are Ford up to? Reading on I learn that Ford’s research lab aims to:

enable innovators – even those with limited resources and technical chops – to see the automobile as a platform for creativity.

1950 Mercury
1950 Mercury

That certainly made me sit up. This sounds more significant than a nice gesture to the minority of car owners adding a bit of chrome and a body kit – with respect to all the creative and talented folks customising their wheels! –  and is talk much more in line with some of the trends thinking I mentioned earlier.

In the next few months, Ford expects to release the beta version of its car app developer kit. There are already more than 1,000 developers waiting to be notified when it’s ready. At that point, this lab’s work will shift to supporting and growing a community of car hackers. “We’re interested in spurring the creation of an ecosystem,”

"Iles de Paix" modular polyhedra
Community! Ecosystem!

There we go, a “community”, an “ecosystem”, I had a feeling these two might get a mention, we can’t be going anywhere these days without them! Seriously!

But again, we might argue this is nothing new in the world of car-modding. Even as someone who has never even replaced the pommel on a gear stick, I know that there are magazines to buy, meetups to go to, engine tuning services, and a myriad of shiny but loud exhaust pipes, carbon fibre trim, LED lights, the list goes on….

The difference as I see it – and it’s an important distinction – is in the use of the word “developer”.

Ford’s OpenXC API runs on a combination of Arduino and Android platforms – technology chosen to make modding your car as easy as programming a smartphone. The system can potentially access the 1,000 or more data points, generated by sensors on Ford vehicles and served up via the 16-pin onboard diagnostics port (a standard feature of all cars since 1996). The Ford toolkit encourages development of software as well as add-on hardware.

AnalogTestArray
Moving into the social, networked era…

This is taking car tuning into the social, networked era. You may think it rings of putting domotica on four wheels. Indeed, it may start with a lot of that. Yet the number of sensors churning out data will continue to grow, those 1,000+ data points exponentially. The possibilities for innovative new features begin to rack up.

Why not imagine a heads-up display incorporating real-time GPS-located braking distances based upon crowd-sourced braking distances and speeds from other motorists driving the same road?

Whilst I just came up with the idea to illustrate a point, I’d wager on it not being particularly original. T.J. Giuli – who runs the Ford lab – we can assume has many of his own. Yet even he recognises this is already something with significant momentum behind it, likely driven in a large part by the passionate car tuning community.

“Tons of people are already making car apps that work with OBD2 readers, or replacing the center stack with their own car computer. That’s happening today, and there’s nothing that anybody can do to stop it. So, it’s a good idea for OEMs like Ford to make this really easy. Hopefully, we can benefit customers with a lot of awesome new features.”

Don’t believe him? Take a quick look at DashCommand on Apple’s app store….

Whilst taking our car purchasing choices and configurations well beyond the current website-based, more marketing focused attempts can only be a good thing, what I find interesting here is the extent to which approaches like this have to potential to bring significant additional value over time.

Modular manufacturing
Modular manufacturing

There are the obvious categories such as efficiency, safety, but what about some that are potentially more challenging? it remains a reality that a car purchase is an irregular event for many of us, particularly in today’s economic climate – again, something we could argue is a good thing. Yet our transport needs change over time, whether it be lifestyle, location, children….

I’m optimistic that initiatives like this from Ford can gain the legs necessary to see innovative strides forward. Wouldn’t it be good if where we are able to re-configure aspects of our cars to help cope with those changing needs rather than simply have to go out and buy a new one….

As it turns out, that is not a new idea either! Whilst browsing for images to illustrate this post, I turned up one of Dave Gray‘s wonderful drawings, with the following details:

A US-based company named Wikispeed has adopted a modular approach with the design of the SGT01, a car designed as a modular platform which will empower suppliers to innovate freely. Each part of the car is a component that fits into a standard interface.

It will be interesting to watch this evolve.

Recommended further reading:

If you got this far and found it even remotely interesting, Dave Gray‘s article “The future is podular” is much better!

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