American Journey 2.0: A visit to Northwestern University

Computers & Mobile Energy & Sustainability
American Journey 2.0: A visit to Northwestern University

Follow the Team Bobcat Ford Fiesta caravan…

Team Bobcat visits Northwestern University


The members of Team Bobcat made their first stop at Northwestern University on Friday. They set up in front of the Technological Institute, giving demonstrations and showing off Caravan Track to students and interested passersby.

I got a chance to meet up with the American Journey 2.0 team at Northwestern, their first stop, in Evanston, IL. I had a great time meeting everyone, the students and Ford engineers, learning about their applications, and picking their brains to find out where they see this technology heading. To get a feel for how it went, check out their photo set on Facebook, and mine on Flickr, and if you’re coming to the Maker Faire Bay Area, be sure to catch up with the team there!

About Caravan Track


The brainchild of Team Bobcat, Caravan Track is an application designed to be the perfect digital companion for the modern road trip. The concept is straightforward — to enable a caravan of cars to communicate efficiently and safely with one another as they travel together. To achieve this, the team divided the different functions one might wish to communicate into five screens. The home screen shows GPS navigation and the relative locations of the other cars in the group. A messaging screen allows you to quickly send canned messages from one car to another (e.g. “I am hungry,” “I need gas”). Two “Stops” screens help search for restaurants and gas stations, and allow each car to let the others know when and where they want to take a break. The car info screen shows the speed, fuel levels, and current destination for each car in the caravan, helping the entire group decide where they should stop next.

Team member Sangmi Park, who’s pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Computer Interaction, says that the primary design considerations for the application were simplicity and safety. Because any distraction while driving can be potentially dangerous, the team worked to make sure that the system could be controlled using simple gestures. For instance, the messaging system uses canned content that can be clicked on instead of requiring users to type messages on an on-screen keyboard. The system also incorporates text-to-speech to audibly alert passengers in the other vehicles when a message is received.

Caravan Track was developed during the course of a twelve week class by the student team, and is actually the first real-life program that most of them have developed from scratch. It’s built on a client/server model, where the server is located in “the cloud” (Internet-based computing) and each vehicle runs a copy of the client. The server portion is written in PHP and runs on a virtual Apache/PHP/MySQL server. The client application runs on a research version of Ford’s SYNC platform. It was written using Fiestaware, an application framework written in C# and based on the Microsoft Robotic Studio platform. John pointed out that the client app could potentially run on other platforms, such as smart phones, making the application that much more versatile.

To see the program in action, check out their demonstration video.

Meet AJ, the twittering Ford


We’ve seen toasters, even washing machines and ovens, that tweet, so why not cars? AJ (@AJtheFiesta) is such a twittering auto. I must admit, I was a tad skeptical at first — it seemed gimmicky. But after discussing the project with lead researcher T.J. Giuli, I think I understand the import here. The whole system is actually quite sophisticated, as it is tied into the vehicle’s CAN bus (“Controller-area network,” the standard for car-computer communications). To generate tweets, AJ reads at a variety of sensor data, including speed, temperature, and directional changes. Using this information, it generates “happiness” and “intensity” readings, which are then mapped to a particular mood, and that mood is tweeted. Upon learning the idea behind it, I wondered out loud what would happen if it needed an oil change. Would AJ start to tweet messages about feeling sick? T.J. laughed and said this is one of the best parts about this project, hearing all of the potential application that people come up with — they’re excited to be providing the platform on which these ideas might come to life.

OK, maybe my example of an oil change is an obvious one, but there’s a lot of room for more sophisticated applications. Speaking with the engineering team, I remembered another system that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. In Pittsburgh, where I live, many of our roads aren’t wide enough (they really should be five lane, but only have room for four), so you have to pay special attention to which lane you’re in at different spots in the road. What I was hoping to find in an application was a lane suggestion program that records your average speed and lane position every time you drive down a street, and then uses statistics to suggest which lane you should shift to in order to avoid getting stuck behind a large number of vehicles turning right or left. Could this system potentially handle such a challenge? Of course!

Once the ideas started rolling, they kept coming. T.J. mentioned that they were considering adding a system that could automatically capture photos of cars that were behaving poorly, and tweet about them. I explained my grand plan to replace the current law enforcement-based ticketing system with reputation-based voting, inspired by Cory Doctorow’s concept of “Whuffie,” reputation-based currency, described in his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Under my plan, everyone would have a bank of virtual “points” that would determine their eligibility to drive. You’d be able to give points to people who let you merge in front of them, for instance, and people who drove inconsiderately would have to pay points to make up for them. Run out of points, and your drivers license would be suspended for a length of time. Would this be possible to implement? Um… maybe technically, but not without major social change. But hey, we’re brainstorming here…

We should probably point out that this is still strictly a research platform, however, one thing that’s significant about it is that Ford is taking steps to open the platform up for use outside of its labs. This makes a lot of sense, considering that their competitors are not only other car manufacturers, but fast-expanding tech companies like Apple and Google. It remains to be seen what will make it into production vehicles, however, the fact that Ford is moving in this direction, and is coming to Maker Faire to show off their work and to try and get makers excited, are good signs. Imagine a future where there’s an online store for car apps and the barriers to entry for such app development were low. Caravan Track offers a glimpse of that potential.

Next Time


Stay tuned for the next update, when we catch up with the team at University of Colorado in Boulder, to see how their application has been performing!

Follow the Team Bobcat Fiesta caravan…

American Journey 2.0: Team Bobcat hits the road

MAKE’s coverage of American Journey 2.0 is sponsored by SYNC®

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