Driven Computing Alumni–Student Team Wins Ford EV Hackathon-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Driven Computing Alumni–Student Team Wins Ford EV Hackathon

The Driven Computing team at work: from left, Ruchir Patwa, Anvitha Jaishankar, Varun Jain, David Pfeffer, David Jensen, and Liz Slocum Jensen
The Driven Computing team at work: from left, Ruchir Patwa, Anvitha Jaishankar, Varun Jain, David Pfeffer, David Jensen, and Liz Slocum Jensen

Every year, Ford Motor Company releases more innovative and technically advanced vehicles, and to keep improving their performance, the 110-year-old car company has hosted a series of workshops and hackathons to allow developers to experiment with the OpenXC hardware/software platform for vehicle data. The latest was held Sept. 6-8 at TechShop in Menlo Park, with a team led by Carnegie Mellon University alumni from the Silicon Valley campus driving away with top honors. 

The team represented Driven Computing, a startup founded by CMU-SV alumnus David Jensen (MS SE '05) and his wife Liz Slocum Jensen with fellow alumnus and recent graduate David Pfeffer (MS SE '13). The company provides a unified toolkit for developers to integrate with connected cars through a single API, regardless of manufacturer or type of after-market device providing the connection.

For Pfeffer, it's the perfect extension of his interests and the work he did as a student at CMU-SV. "I was one of the first students to benefit from CMU-SV’s new emphasis on Connected and Embedded Systems. These courses opened up a new world of computer architectures to me and taught me how to build cloud based architectures that leverage a multitude of embedded systems and the sensor data they contain," he said. "This knowledge, along with the solid training I gained through the core Software Engineering curriculum, has been critical to Driven Computing’s progress as we seek to make the data from automobiles more accessible to web and mobile application developers."

This semester the company is sponsoring a practicum for the three students in the Information Networking Institute's bicoastal MS-IT program, Ruchir Patwa, Varun Jain and Anvitha Jaishankar. They had just started working with Driven a few weeks earlier, Liz Jensen said, so "we thought the hackathon would be a good event to get know each other and discover how we work together."

It was also an opportunity to learn about Ford’s platform, which was new to the whole team. OpenXC is usually read-only, allowing access to data in the vehicles from a hardware module within the car’s internal network. Hacker teams, however, had access to three modified Ford plug-in hybrid electric vehicles with a more robust signal set and beta APIs that gave them control of select additional functions. These aren’t standard yet, but the OpenXC platform will likely be extended to include more options as more and more developers get to work with connected cars. 

After an introduction to OpenXC on Friday night, the team started brainstorming and came in Saturday ready to work. Their winning app receives and manages all the data coming from the car and uses a series of preprogrammed triggers to execute certain actions. Users can subscribe to certain events — "such as ‘if my speed goes over X’ or ‘if I arrive within 2 miles of point Y’" Patwa explained — and then decide what they’d like to occur when the car triggers those events.

That might be using a social site to check in at a location, sending a text message to a friend or colleague, or interacting with security systems and thermostats. To make it happen, the team integrated Ford's OpenXC API into Zapier, a service provided by a Mountain View-based startup that can automate tasks between online services.

After a smooth Day 1, a few unforeseen challenges arose on the second day, trying to keep the services connected and working throughout their many tests. "I remember in the early afternoon on Sunday, everyone was in The Zone and focused on their tasks but when someone ran into challenges there was always another person willing to help out and pair program," said Liz Jensen.

Patwa noted that this hackathon was much different from ones the students experienced in Pittsburgh. Theirs was the only team with students, and the other competitors weren’t as secretive. "A few hours into the hackathon and we knew what every team was doing and how," he said.

The winner was announced Sunday night following demonstrations from each team. Sudipto Aich, a research engineer at Ford Silicon Valley Lab, said "I think the CMU-SV team did a brilliant hack integrating the OpenXC API to communicate with other APIs. To allow end-users to create custom triggers that are unique to them and not have to wait for app developers to build is fantastic, especially in an ever expanding universe of APIs."

One of the prizes was the loan of a Ford electric car for a week — great news for the students, Patwa said, because “as a part of our practicum project we needed a Ford Electric car to do some testing.”

This isn’t the first success for Driven Computing; in April 2013, a team with the core team members and other SV students won $1500 at a Hertz Hackathon. Pfeffer and Mark Hennessy (MS SE '13) also worked with the Jensens in Summer 2013 and presented at the 2013 Tech Showcase (pdf).

Other Carnegie Mellon students and developers will get a look at the Ford OpenXC platform at a TechShop Pittsburgh workshop Sept 13-14.