American Journey 2.0: AJtheFiesta takes Boulder
By Laura Rich
Apparently in need of a good road-trip stretch, AJ the Ford Fiesta checked into Yo Momma Yoga.
“It was an auto-check-in,” explained T.J. Giuli, research engineer at Ford Infotronics, at a Tweetup at Bookends Cafe in Boulder, Colorado, the second official stop on A.J.’s cross-country tour. “AJtheFiesta” is actually one in a caravan of three cars, carrying five students from the University of Michigan, six Ford engineers and researchers, and one Microsoft engineer. They had come to a stop, and pulled in at a Best Western hotel, which happened to be located near the yoga studio. “If there are several locations that come up, it asks you to select one,” said Giuli. If there’s only one, it automatically selects that location and “checks in,” via location-based app Foursquare, and a tweet is sent to the car’s Twitter feed with its latest 10-20.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon on Boulder’s Pearl Street promenade, crowds bustled past the twelve members of the American Journey 2.0 team. The cars were a big draw. Passersby wanted to know when Ford would be releasing cars with the option of the interactive features, and how they worked.
Joseph Rork, Ford’s IT architect, explained that they were on a road trip of cars rigged with PCs plugged into the cars’ internal networks. And that it was the perfect test drive for the system that won the “Cloud Computing in the Commute” competition at the University of Michigan, beating out five other teams. Being out on the open road, traveling with two cars equipped with their application, Caravan Track (and other test-apps), and a third with spare equipment — from tires to motherboards — has given the students and engineers a first-hand look at the possibilities, and the fun.
“A semi pulled up next to us and asked us ‘what kind of car is that?,’” said Joseph Ross, solution developer for Ford’s IT team. “We told him and he said, ‘That’s awesome!’” More excitement when they arrived in Boulder and a cyclist, zooming down the road, came to a quick halt to snap an image with his iPhone and tell the crew, “I read about you guys on the Internet!” Later, when the cars rolled up to Boulder’s Pearl Street for the Tweetup, a couple came up to them as they parked and said they’d heard about the trip on National Public Radio.
At the cafe, the drivers took over the sidewalk tables and answered questions from passersby who wanted to know how the technology worked. They talked about how they had been coding on the fly — or on the drive, as it were. The software still had some bugs the first couple of days on the road, so the student-passengers took out their laptops and began coding away. By the third day, the apps were working as they should: AJ tweeting “moods” about the weather to Twitter (sunny weather reports obtained from Yahoo! Weather would make for a happy A.J., for example); Caravan Track letting the cars keep account of one another on the road through GPS mapping; and allowing for communication between the cars via pre-programmed phrases, or custom messages that would suddenly pipe up on the other car’s stereo system. “It was a lot of fun to be able to type out a sentence and have it be read on your friend’s car’s stereo,” said Ross.
At one point, the two cars were a little less than 20 miles apart. “That’s when we saw that they were gaining on us,” said Tom Alexander, who said it was kind of thrilling to work to maintain their lead.
Although the cars are intended for interactivity not just among caravaning vehicles, but also anyone with a net connection, the cars have had just a few Twitter exchanges and one significant “road rally,” a feature which allows users to plug in destinations for the cars. In Boulder, one user entered a road rally target point that ended at Chautauqua Park — in the middle of the picnic area. Obviously, the car wasn’t able to complete the rally. “We took a picture,” said Ross. And they talked about how to fix the glitch, “either widen the radius or fix the target point.”
With hundreds more miles and one more significant stop to go, at Stanford University, the American Journey 2.0 caravan seems destined for great fanfare when it finally arrives at Maker Faire.
The American Journey 2.0 team showing off AJ at a Starbucks, before a full day of media interviews in Boulder.
Team members Tom Alexander and Joseph Rork get psyched about Maker Faire, and flash some MAKE goodies.
Stay tuned for the next update, when we catch up with the team at Stanford, their last stop before the Faire.
Laura Rich is a Boulder, CO-based journalist who has written or worked for Portfolio.com, The New York Times, FastCompany.com, The Industry Standard, and others.
MAKE’s coverage of American Journey 2.0 is sponsored by SYNCÂ®