SAN JOSE, Calif. — Many of us in the electronics industry are still scrambling to locate the turf where amateur hobbyists/tinkerers (a.k.a. "makers") find common ground with professional engineers.
On one hand, it's clear that the entry barrier for amateurs to design a system is lowering as open software and hardware platforms rise. On the other hand, it's not so clear what chance the industry has to find a gem -- among the dross devised by part-timers and hobbyists -- that could become the next Nest, the thermostat company bought by Google at $3.2 billion.
What's in it for Ford?
Seriously, what's in it for companies -- system vendors and chip companies alike -- to invest in helping amateurs?
Call me a realist, but "What's in it for Ford?" was the first question that popped into my head when I had occasion to meet Ford Motor Company research engineer Zac Nelson. A recent MIT graduate, Nelson talked about "Opening Up the Car for All Makers" during his keynote at the EE Live! Conference here last week.
Ford Motor Company research engineer Zac Nelson
Ford Research has developed OpenXC, its open-source hardware and software platform that lets enthusiasts extend their vehicles with custom applications and pluggable modules. The idea behind OpenXC is to "make your car as easy to program as your smartphone," Ford says.
Nelson, a born tinkerer, takes a liberal attitude about letting car owners modify their vehicles and develop their own features and functions -- as long as they don't void the warranty or electrocute themselves when fiddling with high-voltage.
By opening the platform, "We want to bring people back into automobiles," said Nelson in his keynote.
Further, during an interview after his speech, Nelson said that Ford would like to learn what features and functions -- ideas the carmaker hasn't even considered -- are in demand by consumers. That's what's in it for Ford.
How this works
Just to be clear, the OpenXC platform is not designed to expose proprietary information carmakers don't want in the public domain, such as what's going on over a CAN bus inside a vehicle.
The OpenXC platform, however, provides "real-time, read-only vehicle data beyond diagnostics," to those armed with simply a host device (typically a laptop or tablet running Android or Python) and a vehicle interface device (in the form of a dongle), said Nelson.
The Vehicle Interface (VI or CAN translator) is hardware that connects to the car's CAN bus, translates proprietary CAN messages to the standard OpenXC message format, and sends the output over USB, Bluetooth, or Ethernet/WiFi to a host device.
Ford developed a dongle-style vehicle interface that connects directly to the OBD II diagnostic port with no cable.
Ford manufactured this design in small quantities to seed the developer community, according to the company. If a user has an idea for an OpenXC application and this hardware would help, the user is encouraged to submit a request for a prototype.
The OpenXC platform provides “real-time, read-only vehicle data beyond diagnostics.”
The modifications and additional features tinkerers, DIYers, and innovators could develop through the OpenXC platform range from a retro gauge to haptic shift knobs (which was Nelson's project) and even a backup camera, explained Nelson.
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