Ford seeks connected-car apps with a Start-Up Nation twist

Following in the footsteps of other auto manufacturers, the US carmaker is holding a hackathon for Israeli app developers

A Ford Hackathon in Brazil, February 5, 2015 (Courtesy)
A Ford Hackathon in Brazil, February 5, 2015 (Courtesy)

Ford is the latest automobile manufacturer to turn to Israel as a source for technology for connect cars – vehicles that enable vehicles to upload and download information and data to and from a server, ensuring safety and enhancing the driving experience.

“We’ve done events like these around the world, but this is the first time we are doing it in Israel,” said Scott Lyons, a connected car expert and Ford’s point man on developing partnerships with app makers for connected cars. “We think Israel is a hotbed of engineering talent and ideas, and we decided it was high time we tapped into its tech ecosystem.”

Israel has emerged as a center for technology development for several auto manufacturers – the most involved being GM, which is developing technology for engineering, materials, and more.

But what has really piqued the interest of manufacturers in Israel is the country’s experience in networking technology and app development. Put the two together, and you have the ingredients for connected car tech, the latest area of expansion – and competition – that manufacturers have adopted.

In recent months, Toyota and Hyundai have held hackathons in Israel to ferret out new apps to add to their connected car ecosystems – and now Ford, the oldest US car manufacturer, is holding its own hackathon. The Ford AppLink Challenge, set to take place next week, is a 24-hour open forum for Israel’s tech community to develop new technologies for Ford Sync Systems in the company’s new models. Winners get cash or a new Ford Fiesta, and, said Lyons, an opportunity to partner with Ford on projects. The event is being held in partnership with Axis Innovation, a boutique advisory firm that connects investors and corporations with technology startups globally.

AppLink and Sync are Ford’s mobile to car connection system, with apps running on a user’s smartphone connecting to the vehicle via Bluetooth or direct cable connection, so drivers can use apps like Waze or Google Maps to guide them, with maps displayed on the vehicle’s built-in entertainment screen and voice turn by turn instructions coming out of the car’s speakers. There are also several “native” apps for the systems, versions of popular apps like Spotify that can be controlled by voice commands.

In addition, there are dozens of apps for navigation, local information, and even speed camera locations that were written specifically for AppLink. It’s that latter category of app that Ford will be looking for in the Tel Aviv edition of the Challenge, said Lyons.

A good example of what Ford is looking for is FuelSignal, which won the 2014 Ford Developer Conference. The app allows users to pay for gas with a mobile wallet, giving them points in filling station chain loyalty programs, by using buttons on the steering wheel, instead of using the smartphone itself, to do the actual payment.

“AppLink is the biggest and oldest connected car platform of any car maker (the system first appeared over five years ago), and at this point we have dozens of apps in most of the ‘usual’ categories, like music and local data,” said Lyons. “Israel is a good place for Internet of Things and wearable app technology, and we think developers here will have good ideas for apps that have a health theme that can connect to smart watches or other digital health devices.”

Thus, for example, a developer could come up with an app that reads drivers’ emotions (by checking pulse or heartbeat) to determine if they are agitated – possibly falling victim to road rage – thus triggering the device to play some quiet music or a comedy routine to put the driver in a better mood.

“We are vetting all the ideas that are being pitched to ensure that they meet our requirements for safe use while driving,” said Lyons. “We’ve actually turned down more ideas than we have accepted.”

Besides safety, cyber-security – especially in light of recent instances of connected-car hacking – is a major concern, said Lyons, “but because the apps are hosted on the device, not the car, a hacker wouldn’t find anything to hack into in the vehicle itself, so although we have very strict protocols on which apps we accept – vetting them for security – we’re comfortable with AppLink security.”

Although the Challenge is Ford’s first major event in Israel, the company has had a presence here for at least two years. “We’ve had two ‘talent scouts’ on the ground here for the past couple of years,” said Lyons. “Their job is to seek out technology and start-ups that fits into our vision, in a number of areas.”

Lyons himself is quite familiar with Israel, having visited over the past decade for personal and business purposes. “I put out the idea that Israel was a good place to look for technology, and company officials who make those decisions were on board from the beginning. There was no questioning as to whether it was a ‘good’ or ‘safe’ decision; they were actually excited at the idea of engaging with Israel,” said Lyons.

“I see the hackathon as the beginning of a beneficial, long-term relationship with Israel,” he added. “We are dipping our toe in the water with this, but I am positive we will be doing much more in Israel in the future.”

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