Smart Cars: Fill 'Er Up With Apps

Why our cars need to work more like our phones.

When I pull up to a red light, I pull out my phone. Then the light turns green, every other car is moving, and someone's honking because I can't stop tittering at Twitter. Technically, my behavior is illegal in many states--but my concern, as is my wont, is that technology hasn't yet solved this problem. Many new cars are equipped with loads of sensors, including radar and cameras that could theoretically detect when the light has changed. So why can't my car alert me before the poor guy behind me has an aneurysm?

If cars were like smartphones, there'd be an app for that. "Your car is the most expensive computer you own," says Thejo Kote, CEO of Automatic, a startup whose app gives users advice about how they're driving while they're driving. "But it's a black box. You don't have access to it." Automatic is a well-funded startup that's trying to open up that box and play with some of the diagnostic info that your car collects. It is not alone in seeing the car as an innovation hub. Apple has been agitating to integrate Siri and maps into car dashboards, and forward-thinking carmakers, such as Ford, are starting to build apps on top of the car's real-time technical data. But what's missing is the idea that powered the smartphone explosion: Our driving experience would improve dramatically if the power to experiment wildly were in the hands of everyone.

Our cars should have the equivalent of iOS or Android, with an equally supple app store. They should be easy to update, with new features created by developers around the world. Want your seat position and radio presets to sync across all your vehicles? Want a wireless Breathalyzer that prevents the car from starting when you're wasted? Cars, like phones, are incredibly powerful combinations of sensors and processors, and once app makers get access to that power, we'll all be surprised by the amazing variety of ways we can digitally pimp our beater.

This isn't lost on some in the industry, but cars are a slow-moving device market. A vehicle you buy today will be on the road for the next decade at least, so innovations take a while to make their way into the fleet. Turning autos into APIs also raises safety and security concerns. Malware in your motor would be more than a minor nuisance, and there are no common standards for all the data being collected by sensors. There are also auto-industry cultural issues to overcome. "For certain kinds of information, there's a worry that we'd expose intellectual property or something else other people shouldn't see," says TJ Giuli, research leader at Ford's Silicon Valley Lab.

Folks like Giuli are trying to change that attitude. His lab is working on an open-source project dubbed OpenXC, which provides a standard programming interface for third-party developers to access every sensor in a car. (The project is "read only," meaning that you wouldn't be able to infect the car with a virus.) Other carmakers have expressed "private interest" in the project.

That's to their own benefit. Hardware hobbyists are the industry's most passionate customers, but as the world's tinkerers increasingly work on code rather than carburetors, cars risk losing a source of invention. "If we truly want to be in the tech economy," Giuli says, "we have to figure a way to harness the people who want to make our cars better." They're waiting for the green light.

Photo illustration by Neil Stevens

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