Connected Vehicle Apps, Bluemix, IoT Foundation, Watson – A Perfect Combination

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Ford TDK

Back in September at the CTIA Supermobility conference, Ford Motor Company hosted a Connected Vehicle Hackathon at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. This was the first ever Ford sponsored event designed explicitly to drive awareness and community around their Connected Vehicle Infotainment strategy, SYNC AppLink. Ford teamed up with the city of Los Angeles to make data available for developers to use in their applications. Over 170 people attended the event from 15 different countries. At the end of the week, each team had seven minutes to present and demo their application concept and ten semi-finalists were named. Winners received a Technical Development Kit to use in testing their applications (the TDK is a fully functional infotainment unit, with CANBUS simulated data, and voice recognition).

Before I get into the details of the PureFocus Application and our experience at the Hackathon, let’s get familiar with Connected Vehicle technology.

How do cars connect to the cloud?

There are three approaches in the market for Connected Vehicle Services: 1) the On-Board Diagnostics (OBD-II) port which is used for aftermarket purposes like fleet management and data driven insurance providers; 2) Embedded Modems provided by the car manufacturer like the General Motors OnStar service; and 3) smart phones provided by the driver, Ford’s approach. Ford believes their model is more effective for driving unique content and services made available through known channels and platforms like the Apple and Google Play stores. They too are implementing embedded modems in vehicles, but only for the purposes of getting vehicle health report information, E911 services, unlocking the doors, starting the car, and delivering firmware over the air (FOTA).


What is SYNC AppLink?

SYNC AppLink is a simple to use API (application programming interface) developed by Ford that allows developers to create applications that seamlessly integrate with the HMI (human machine interface) in the car. For example, you can use the voice recognition capability in the vehicle to control your application and “talk” to the passengers, display information on the screen in the car, leverage buttons on the dashboard, and even change the behavior of buttons on the steering wheel. If you didn’t know, Pandora uses AppLink in their application to create a more integrated experience for drivers. No need to write application code that gets deployed in the Infotainment unit in the vehicle. Developers just interact with the vehicle through the AppLink API.

Not only can developers do the things I described above, but in AppLink 2.0 you can access vehicle data published from the CANBUS directly. This opens the door for all kinds of potential applications and use cases around vehicle data and serviceability. Wouldn’t it be great if the Starbucks app let you know of a special offer as you approached, or even sent your standard order to be ready when you pull up? This is all possible today using Sync AppLink. You don’t have to wait years for Ford to develop this into their vehicles, unlike other manufacturers.

What is Smart Device Link (SDL)?

Open-source is the foundation of Ford’s strategy. Ford took their AppLink API and gave it to the community via the GENIVI alliance. GENIVI is a non-profit industry alliance committed to driving broad adoption of an open-source In-Vehicle Infotainment system. In GENIVI, the project is known as Smart Device Link. Much like IBM’s approach to using open-source and defining standards, Ford believes that providing an open API to interact with the head unit while still allowing competition on the implementation eliminates the challenge of integration. Any OEM can use SDL and build their own product while providing well known public interfaces for integration. Ford promises SDL will work in any AppLink enabled vehicle, thereby ensuring compatibility and longevity of the standard.

Back to the Hack: IBM’s PureFocus Application

As soon as I heard about the Hackathon, I quickly put together a killer team to participate: Peter Xu from our BlueMix Technical team, Bryan Boyd from our Austin Development lab, and Joshua Carr from the Hursley Lab Developer Outreach team. Our goal was to create a compelling scenario that demonstrates how Bluemix, IoT Foundation and Watson could be used in Connected Vehicle applications.

Dean, Bryan, Peter, Joshua
Dean, Bryan, Peter, Joshua

The team came up with the idea to create a “Gamified, Social, Safe Driving Application.” The concept goes like this: imagine you are driving down the road and some “idiot” cuts you off and swerves in front of you. Since you have the PureFocus application on your smartphone and it’s paired with the SYNC AppLink head unit, you hit the command button on the steering wheel and say “REPORT DRIVER.” The voice recognition system in the car passes the command to our app through SYNC AppLink and then asks the driver, “WHAT HAPPENED?”

Those Idiot Drivers

Since in-vehicle voice recognition systems are finicky, to put it mildly, we decided to let the driver speak more freely about the jerk who just cut them off. Using the Audio Pass Through feature of SYNC Applink, we capture audio from the driver who says something like this in response to the WHAT HAPPENED request: “Some jerk just cut me off.” We send the audio clip back to a Watson Speech to Text service and leverage Watson Concept Expansion to determine the sentiment of what the driver said. Watson Concept Expansion reads a Twitter feed for terms similar to “idiot,” the seed word we provided the service. If the driver says anything equivalent to “jerk” or “idiot” or some other more colorful expression, we know that we need to identify the offending driver and “ding” their safe driving profile.

How do we know who they are?

We determine the offending driver using their geo-location, steering manuevers, speed, and braking pattern data that comes from the vehicle through SYNC AppLink. Assuming they have the application installed, much like how Waze works today, we tag their profile with an “IDIOT” event that decrements their safe driving score for the offending action. Additionally, the app allows you to gamify the whole thing and challenge your friends on Facebook or Twitter to be safer drivers. As you gain points on your profile, you can unlock more interesting avatars and badges and make it a truly engaging experience.


The application was built in iOS using IBM’s Bluemix Platform as a Service, Watson Speech to Text, Watson Concept Expansion, Cloudant, and IoT Foundation. To make things more interesting, we married it with Bryan’s Connected Vehicle Maps hackathon kit that he hosts on our m2m Demos site to visualize how the solution works. He even created a Nintendo-like remote control that lets us manipulate the cars on the map for demonstration purposes to “cut someone off.”

Any comments or questions? Post below or contact me via Twitter @deanphi!

PureFocus Simulator

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