Thinking Tech

Open source in your car or an open source car

Open source in your car or an open source car

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This may not sound quick to those of us who work in Internet time, but in terms of auto development this is light speed.

Open source has a tough time with the car market because cars are expensive, and they're mostly not composed of software.

This does not mean open source is permanently excluded.

The folks at Ford, which alone among America's automakers avoided the hand of government during the Great Recession, are out with a release describing what has happened since they began the process of opening the Application Program Interface (API) of their SYNC program to outside developers last year.

(Hicars.org has a neat page describing the history of the Ford logo, at right.)

They signed six University of Michigan-Dearborn students as SYNC Developers, who worked with Ford's people to winnow 100 ideas into a set of apps like RadioSYNC, an entertainment application, and FollowMe, a navigation application that lets drivers find one another.

These applications, and others, are going into an App Store Ford announced last month, in preparation for releasing a full API later this year.

This may not sound quick to those of us who work in Internet time, but in terms of auto development this is light speed. Outside developers chosen, initial applications tested, a commitment to open an API within a year, for programs that work inside a car that can be going 80 mph down the highway? Heads are spinning.

If they want their minds blown a little more wide-open, Ford announced this week its cars will support WiFi, while parked, through a USB port. Plug in your broadband modem and the kids can play games while you go into the store. If you have mobile 3G service, it can even work while you're driving home. (Got WiMax?)

It's for these reasons that Ford is going to keynote the Consumer Electronics Show this week. Change is a long, hard journey, but the company has taken decisive steps in the right direction.

Meanwhile RiverSimple, which is working on a truly open source car driven by a hydrogen fuel cell, came a step closer to reality with the publication of its first engineering drawings. They're starting with the rear drivetrain, so you can't yet build a whole car.

The company is hoping to deliver 10 prototypes for people to try maining and produce 5,000 of its own cars  a year, in the UK, starting next year.

It's important to note that open source software started this way, too. That is, slowly. But open source accelerates as more-and-more developers and users get into it.

Hopefully automotive open source will work the same way.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure