Ford's 'open platform' car: How open is 'open'?

Ford Motor Company is now touting its vehicles as an open platform, but what does that mean and how open is it? Here are the answers.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief
Ford Focus Electric
Here's the Ford Focus Electric at Ford's Michigan test track. Photo credit: Jason Hiner | CBS Interactive

In becoming a part of the technology world, Ford Motor Company has learned how to talk the talk and use all the right jargon. One of the concepts that it has especially embraced and likes to wave like a banner is the idea of the open platform.

From Chairman Bill Ford -- the great grandson of Henry Ford -- down to the average professional at the company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, the Ford team will be happy to tell you that Ford vehicles now represent an open platform that supports the latest mobile devices and allows developers to embrace it and make it even better.

To get an idea for what Ford really means when it says “open platform” and figure out just how open it really is, we recently sat down with one of the company’s leading technologists at the historic Ford Research and Innovation Center at the company’s world headquarters in Michigan.

The 'What’s Next' Guy

Venkatesh Prasad
Ford's K. Venkatesh Prasad | Photo credit: Ford

If you wanted to do a deep dive on Ford’s approach to technology and pick one person who represents the pioneering work Ford has done in IT and open platforms in recent years, the guy to talk to is K. Venkatesh Prasad (right). Technically, his title is Group and Senior Technical Leader of Vehicle Design and Infotronics. But in the hallways at Ford, Prasad, as everyone calls him, is simply known as the "What’s Next" guy.

"Prasad is really a thought leader in the company around consumer experience and interfacing not only with consumers but also developers," said John Ginder, Manager of Systems Analytics. "He's a senior technical leader. This is a high technical position within Ford. He's got a lot of different hats that he wears... He was one of the folks who helped develop SYNC many years ago."

Ford plucked Prasad from Silicon Valley in 1996, when he was working as a senior researcher at Ricoh, after stints at Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Prasad said, “When I first met with Ford decision makers, they asked me what I knew about cars and I told them, ‘Not much.’ They said, ‘That’s who we need… we have 15,000 engineers here who know everything about cars and trucks. What we need is someone from outside our box to help us make our products safer, cleaner and the journey more fun.’ That intrigued me.”

The biggest impact that Prasad had at Ford was to get the company to think beyond the 1990s limitations of having everything in a Ford vehicle being tied to a hardware module, which was the only way Ford knew how to build vehicles at the time and the only way it knew how to sell options to consumers. Prasad and his team were thinking of a world that was a leapfrog jump beyond the six-CD changers and built-in car phones and rudimentary LED displays of the 1990s. Prasad was thinking of a world powered by software.

The software car

In the late 1990s, Prasad’s group at Ford Research was doggedly trying to bring software into the car and the team was trying all kinds of forward-looking experiments, but kept running into technical obstacles as well as problems integrating into Ford’s business model.

The researchers looked at integrating cell phones directly into the car, but ultimately decided that mobile phones were becoming much more prevalent and much more powerful and that it would be better to simply support consumers’ mobile devices and allow those devices to integrate with the car and share some of their powerful capabilities.

"We were looking at service discovery in a general sense,” said Prasad. “What if your phone declared that it wanted music to be discovered? Or that it wanted the address book to be discovered? How would we then have the computing power in the car ready to make use of that?"

Keep in mind that this was years before the arrival of the iPhone, Android, and the modern smartphone as we know. At that point, most consumers simply had flip phones and a few enterprise users had BlackBerries, which were mostly email devices at that point. This was also before the widespread acceptance of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and USB. The lack of those common standards left the Ford team with having to design custom interfaces to lots of different types of devices.

Still, the direction was set for Ford to create a software platform for technology in the vehicle rather than an encapsulated product to be integrated into vehicles. That was a critical insight because the long development cycle of automobiles -- five years from concept to market -- would mean that any mobile technology Ford tried to build into the vehicle would be badly obsolete by the time consumers actually placed their hands on the steering wheel. Unfortunately, the software platform strategy did not fit into the way Ford did business at that point.

"It was a little too much too early,” Prasad said. “We didn't have the box. At Ford in those days ... unless you had a box, you couldn't buy a component. You had to buy a module. We had no line item for software. Software didn't go anywhere because it didn't have a box."

Prasad’s team stuck to their strategy and when new CEO Alan Malally championed the One Ford initiative in 2006, it changed the way the company operated and opened the door for software to play a prominent in the future of Ford vehicles. Mulally, a former cockpit engineer at Boeing, embraced the idea of a smarter, more-technically savvy console in Ford vehicles. As a result, the work that Prasad’s team had been doing became Ford SYNC, which was well-received by the public when it launched in 2007 and became the first symbol of Ford’s turnaround as a company and its arrival as a player in the technology world.

An open platform

Ford SYNC was far from perfect when it launched. The voice recognition was laughably inconsistent at times, the Bluetooth connections to phones could be erratic and temperamental, and navigating the menus could be tedious. However, it was still light years ahead of most of the competition in virtually every class of vehicles where it was offered.

SYNC allowed you to bring your own phone, pair it with the car and then make speakerphone calls over the vehicle’s built-in sound system. You could also plug in your iPod to the car’s USB’s jack and pump your favorite playlists into the car’s speakers.

There was also smart technology in SYNC that would read your phone’s address book and your iPod’s songs so that it could display who you were talking to or what song you were playing. Even better, once it synced the data from your phone and your iPod then you could use SYNC’s voice activation software to initiate a call or play a song, album, or playlist. Sure, it was rudimentary, but it was also a little magical.

The best part was that Ford didn’t sign exclusive deals with certain technology companies so that their gear would be the only ones to work with SYNC. Ford wanted SYNC to work with as many phones and MP3 players as possible. That’s where the open platform mojo began, and for consumers it was an excellent development.

Ford even got its flagship technology partner Microsoft -- which makes the operating system for Ford SYNC and has never been particularly known for playing nice with rivals or partners -- to get completely on board with Ford’s open platform strategy.

Chris Elliott, Communications Manager for Windows Embedded, said, “SYNC is mobile phone agnostic, which means a customer doesn’t have to worry about their phone working in the car—whether it’s a flip phone they’ve loved for years or the latest Windows Phone, iPhone or Android—it just works. Because SYNC is built on our Windows Embedded Automotive platform, together with Ford, we can offer customers new experiences throughout the ownership of the car.”

SYNC has now been on the market for five years, and to Ford’s credit the company has continued to roll out incremental improvements and fixes, just as a responsible software developer should do, and has made it possible for users to perform the upgrades themselves without having to take their vehicles into a Ford dealer.

In the past couple years, Ford took another step down the open platform path with the launch AppLink. Technically just a feature of SYNC, AppLink is the other big reason why Ford proudly waves the open platform banner to characterize SYNC. AppLink is not an app platform for the car, as it has sometimes been confused for. AppLink is all about allowing smartphone apps to link up with SYNC so that you can control them with SYNC’s voice-activated control system.

Keep in mind that AppLink is a very small step -- it’s not even available on all SYNC models (especially newer models, oddly enough) and there are only a handful of app makers that have participated (mostly audio apps such as Pandora and NPR). Ford has also strictly limited the functionality that app makers can take advantage of, mostly for safety reasons.

"Applink is a specification that is open. It allows you to add value, under [our] terms and conditions,” said Prasad. “We're not saying it's open source. We're not saying it's unlocked. We're saying the specification is open... All things open are closed at some level."

Prasad added, "When you're building something in a vehicle, that's different than building something for a device that's a zero MPH device. We have to worry about safety, we have to worry about warranty, about usability, driver distraction. Those are all concerns… The safety concerns put automobiles in a very different category."

The little hacker tool

While Ford SYNC and AppLink are usually what the company is referring to when it talks about its open platform car, there is also another little vehicle project that’s actually a lot more open. It’s called OpenXC.

"[OpenXC] is open source hardware and open source software, in the true sense of the word... It’s totally open," said Prasad.

Ginder explained, "One of the things [Prasad] and his team have come up with is this OpenXC platform. I believe this is an industry first where Ford makes available -- through a custom piece of hardware that Bug Labs helped develop -- that plugs into the CAN bus (the information bus on the vehicle) and lets anyone extract that data and then build their own applications... You can imagine simple things like some clever developer building a better fuel economy coach or a whole host of other kinds of applications... You can log [your own car data]. You can look for correlations. You can build all kinds of interface devices... You can plug in different displays and interface devices, controls, and that sort of thing."

OpenXC is a joint open source project between Ford and Bug Labs. It is still in limited release, but hackers, technophiles, and developers can get in on it by providing their email address on the OpenXC site and following the project's Google Group for updates.

Open believers

While Ford SYNC and AppLink have their share of caveats and drawbacks, Ford deserves credit for going down the open road since it’s much more friendly to consumers who have not been forced to use only specific types of devices with their Ford vehicles. Even more, Ford has continued to regularly update and improve SYNC and has not backed down from its open platform stance, even after SYNC was established as a success for the company.

Prasad and his team particularly deserve credit for sticking to their strategy of creating an open software platform and allowing consumers to use their own phones -- even though at the time it didn’t fit with Ford’s business model and smartphones were but a shadow of the powerful devices that they would eventually become.

When credited with founding SYNC, Prasad typically deflects the issue and points to the fact that he and his team were allowed to do a lot of experimentation and trial and error before they found the right answer.

"Success has a number of fathers and I'm one of them," said Prasad. "I was there and I saw many a failure. Failure's been my best tutor. Out of the failure comes an incredible amount of learning."

That's spoken like a true Silicon Valley transplant now working halfway across the country for one of the technology world's unexpected rising stars.

Read the rest of the series

This is the third piece in my four-part series on Ford Motor Company and its transformation into an important player in the technology world.

Part 1: Ford's Big Data chief sees massive possibilities, but the tools need work (ZDNet)
Part 2: How Ford reimagined IT from the inside-out to power its turnaround (TechRepublic)
Part 3: Ford's 'open platform' car: How open is 'open'? (ZDNet)
Part 4: Ford is now a 'personal mobility' company: How the comeback kids are riding tech to a new destiny (CNET)

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