Notes From the Auto Show: Smarter, Sexier, More Fun

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

I feel a little silly admitting this, but the word that kept echoing in my head as I walked around this year’s installment of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) was “sexy.” NAIAS was all vehicles with swooping curves, swanky booths serving espresso with a fancy assortment of sweeteners, and lanky models draped over the newest vehicles.

In 2009, the mood was so dour I think they would have canceled the event if they could. It seemed to be all about fuel efficiency and hybrid electric technology in 2010 and 2011. A tentative optimism was on display 2012, but in 2013, the message seemed to be: We’re back, we’re kicking ass, and it’s time to start having fun again.

Of course, for Michigan, this is great news. As much as fiscal conservatives gripe about the auto bailouts, the fact of the matter is that Michigan and other parts of the Midwest would have been decimated if the Big Three had gone under. So much of our economy is tied not just to auto manufacturing, but the suppliers, engineers, designers, and, now, software developers that support the industry. I’m not sure we would have been able to bounce back from that, so fun and sexy is a welcome change of pace for us.

Chrysler’s latest innovation, which also happens to be long on fun, involves a product called Uconnect. Found in models across the Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Fiat spectrum, Uconnect was named the 2012 technology of the year by AOL Autos at CES. The star of Uconnect cars is the car radio, but the number of features packed in transforms the radio into more of a communications center.

Some models have navigation as well as an embedded 3G cell connection. Aamir Ahmed, the Uconnect marketing manager, says later this year, Chrysler will be the first car maker to offer satellite radio in a format similar to a DVR. Drivers will be able to rewind, replay, and tag songs, artists, or sports teams as favorites. That then allows the radio to alert drivers that a favorite is currently playing on another station. Drivers can also designate a favorite city for traffic and weather updates; then they push a button and the update will play for two minutes before automatically going back to what the driver was listening to before.

Uconnect cars have a USB port, an SD port, and an AUX port. Drivers can control the car’s climate by voice and the UConnect car will warn drivers if they’re speeding over a limit set by the driver. Drivers can also compose text messages by voice. After the text is composed, the voice clip is sent to a server powered by Nuance, which turns the text into words, and then sends it back to the driver for approval. Once the message is approved, it’s sent back to the driver’s phone via Bluetooth, and finally sent out to the recipient. This whole process, Ahmed says, takes seconds.

There are also three different call center options with corresponding buttons in the Uconnect car’s rearview mirror. One connects the driver to 911, one to a call center that helps with roadside assistance and remote lock issues, and one that deals with maintenance questions. And if all this wasn’t enough, Uconnect has one more neat trick up its sleeve: the ability to turn the car into a Wi-Fi hot spot. “We really pride ourselves on the amount of features and the ease of use,” Ahmed says.

In addition to emphasizing fun, another trend was afoot at NAIAS: a move toward seeking ideas for innovation from those outside the auto industry and opening the cars’ software platforms so that any developer can create apps for vehicles in much the same way they create them for mobile devices. The automakers I spoke to seemed to want to talk more about the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) than NAIAS. In fact, the dates of the auto show were recently pushed to later in January so they wouldn’t conflict with CES—an incredible development given that automakers just started showing up at CES a couple of years ago, while Detroit’s auto show was considered the industry-standard place to introduce new products for over a century.

At this year’s CES, Ford announced its new Ford Developer program, which went on to win Engadget’s best in show for automotive. Along with the newly announced launch of its Open XC platform, which provides open-source software and hardware toolkits to interested developers, Ford has officially launched a new era. “We’re now recognizing we want to be a software company,” says John Ellis, global technologist for Ford Connected Services. “While we’ve been customer-focused for 110 years and will continue to be, now we’re also developer-focused.”

Ellis says since the launch of Ford Developer two weeks ago, almost 1,900 developers have signed up for software development tools that enable them to integrate their apps with Ford SYNC’s AppLink, which is used in vehicle models across the brand, with an average of 3,000 downloads an hour. “My idea was to create as simple a development program as any other,” he adds. “Developers don’t want friction.”

The key difference between Ford Developer and, say, the Android platform is that when developers download Ford’s software, there’s a license involved. Ellis says it gives developers the right to do what they need to do to create an app, but they aren’t allowed to distribute or commercialize it. “When you think you’re ready to distribute it, you come back to Ford and request a distribution license. You have to pass a safety test, but once that’s done, we issue a full distribution license. Now you’re free to distribute the app to any channel you want—iTunes, Google Play, whatever.”

Of course, there’s a bit of a catch. The safety testing Ford requires is expensive, and most developers would need significant financial backing to complete it. But Ellis says that expense doesn’t mitigate Ford’s desire to put an open call out to all developers to contribute apps to AppLink. “If you’re financially incapable of paying for testing and the idea is really cool, [Ford will] work with you. We’re trying to make sure there’s a swim lane for everybody.”

Ellis joined Ford 11 months ago, and goes out of his way to point out that he comes from the development world—he’s not a car guy. He said what attracted him to the company is the same thing Ford’s data increasingly shows attracts customers to Ford: its technology. “There’s an edginess to Ford and we’re serious about fulfilling that edginess,” he adds. “I don’t get jacked by how fast a car goes, but by how fast my code goes.”

GM is also getting involved in the open innovation game. It just announced a flexible app framework that allows developers to access data from its cars and use it to design apps, rather than designing them for a smartphone or tablet and then uploading them onto an intermediary platform. The apps that are created from this data will be housed in a catalog (they declined to call it an app store to avoid copyright complaints) and consumers will be able to choose and/or change which apps they install. The framework uses HTML5 and Javascript.

At CES, GM held a hackathon seeking innovative ideas, which drew 1,000 participants. Each team was supposed to have five minutes to pitch its idea, says Scott Fosgard, GM’s communications manager for Infotainment, but because so many teams participated, that time was cut down to 90 seconds. “There’s a huge, huge appetite for this sort of thing,” he says.

Fosgard imagines a future where a GM app will be able to tell an insurance company about the safety habits of a driver, or a Corvette capable of teaching owners how to drive better. Or, Fosgard says, imagine being able to plug the route of your road trip into an in-car app and have it tell you along the way where the cheapest places are to stop for gas. Fosgard calls GM’s technology a significant departure from what other car companies are doing because it allows consumers to add and change apps over the life of the car.

Fosgard compares the current push toward the personalization of cars through apps and other technology to the hot rods of the past. “Hot rodding came about out of a desire for customization,” he says. “Today’s hot-rodder is the developer changing the way drivers use the car radio. Now, just like with a smartphone, the longer you have [your car] the better you understand it and the more you like it. We’ve redefined what the car is and does and how long drivers want to keep it.”

In an economy that still seems to be slow to create jobs, this is definitely another avenue for developers to explore. Sick of making the same old smartphone apps? Then maybe it’s time to give the auto industry a try.