Ford, Google, Facebook Collaborating on a Mobile World

Cars were an original way people stay connected, says Ford. Google and Facebook are helping to make it still true today.

NEW YORK—In a car market rampant with claims about the most-efficient brands and greenest vehicles, Ford executives are looking for an application that can help consumers to understand how they personally can create a more fuel-efficient experience.

During a keynote address at the New York International Auto Show here March 27, Ford officials announced a $50,000 Personalized Fuel Efficiency Apps Challenge.

The contest highlights that, more than terrain or weather, the way we drive is the biggest determinant of fuel efficiency. But it also underscores the growing ties between the automotive and mobile device worlds, and how cars, like smartphones, are becoming increasingly personal and in sync with users' other devices and lives.

After delivering the keynote, Jim Farley, Ford's approachable and strikingly earnest-seeming chief marketing officer, moved to a much smaller side room where for a far smaller crowd he sat alongside representatives from Google and Facebook and discussed the still nascent stages of what's widely expected to be a tremendous development in automaking.

Regarding the app contest he'd just announced, Farley said it was a "big deal" to decide to make it opt-in. App developers will have access to Ford's OpenXC open-source development platform, which can read real-time sensor data such as mileage, throttle position, vehicle speed and more—all valuable data points.

"One thing we've learned is that a mobile device is like a piece of jewelry—it's private [and] it's specific to you," Farley said, speaking to where lines need to be drawn, even as new connections are being made. "Because of that, advertising on that device is different from advertising on other devices. It won't work if it's annoying, and it won't work if it's creepy, because it's a private device."

That said, the deepening relationship between cars and personal devices does offer opportunities.

Doug Frisbie, Facebook's head of automotive vertical marketing, who also made a cameo during Farley's keynote, pointed out that cars were once the way that people stayed connected to those they care about. The opportunity today, he said, "is not about phones or social software in cars, but about remembering that no matter the device, it's the ability to connect that matters."

About a year and a half ago, Facebook held an all-night hackathon for developers that was attended by some Ford engineers.