The ad for the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon comes up on my TechCrunch FlipBoard feed as I’m scanning my morning news. The event is sponsored in part by Chevrolet, and previously by General Motors proper, in a PR move that positions the automotive company to become one of the most technologically relevant Automobile as Platform players in the industry.
The TechCrunch Hackathon will run September 7 – 8, 2013 in San Francisco, preceding the Disrupt conference, and draw together hundreds of hackers to develop applications over a 24-hour period. The motivation; knowledge via API presentations from various sponsors, prizes (of course), the chance to demo the application in front of peers, and potentially the chance to attract the interest of the elusive venture capitalist or go on to be sold for millions. Those are exciting stakes for the hackers participating, but the stakes are higher for General Motor’s Chevrolet, who will be presenting its in-vehicle and Remote APIs as part of a series of API Workshops alongside more traditional technology organizations such as Amazon Web Services, Dropbox, and Evernote.
By being more open with their APIs than a number of other automotive manufacturers, the opportunity is for Chevrolet to reap the benefit of the creativity of Hackathon participants and bolster the company’s in-vehicle and remote app offerings. Automobiles as an application platform occupy a unique space for developers. Namely, vehicles are tied directly and physically to objective reality, they can be implicitly located through either their API or the Smartphone app, they are navigation centric, and have connectivity provided by a smartphone. This opens up a wealth of app development possibilities, including those related to the implicitly located or responsive web or automotive user interface interactions that are more congruent with smartphone usage.
The simplest would be an application to send map destinations or routes from a smart phone through to the vehicle’s navigation — Nissan has a similar application, but with the Juke I tested last month it is limited to Android. More complex vehicle-smartphone apps should also be possible, such as warning parents of when their student driver leaves a specific perimeter or route, spurring discussion later at home, cloud storage of vehicle telemetry for later visualization and analysis for performance scenarios such as track days or fuel economy, or more robust “eco” navigation based on live traffic data to determine a route with the least elevation changes and distance, in conjunction with the most consistent traffic flow. Admittedly, these are relatively conservative apps, but that’s the joy of a Hackathon — creativity fuelled by pizza, beer, and hundreds of creative minds being unleashed. With that creativity comes increased relevance to a smartphone and app-centric computing culture where automobile usage and, potentially, influence is diminishing.
Chevrolet (and its parent GM), though, will need to stoke the creative fires in their presentation by proposing some of the more outlandish possibilities for what is possible for its APIs. Cars don’t need more streaming apps, but what if you could see what other vehicles nearby are streaming? That could act as a music suggestion for your playlist? What if vehicles with similar destinations and routes were aware of each other? Coordinated through a cloud infrastructure, drivers could caravan, improving traffic flow by joining a block of traffic moving towards common destinations. Integrating with social media could create the possibility of route based ride sharing, with an opportunity to vet potential ride partners not just though their social media timelines, but driver safety related telemetrics. This doesn’t even touch on the augmented reality or broader social media potentials.
Vehicles are a unique platform sitting at the intersection of our virtual and objective realities, opening the door for complex interactions. It’s an exceptionally bright and bold move by Chevrolet and GM to participate in TechCrunch’s SF Hackathon, one hopes that the automaker not only presents its API, but kindles the fires of creativity in hackers, encouraging them to explore this intersection.