CMU-SV Team Designs Connected Car Rental Experience at Hertz Hackathon-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, April 22, 2013

CMU-SV Team Designs Connected Car Rental Experience at Hertz Hackathon

A team of Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley (CMU-SV) Software Engineering students and alumni took their classroom learning out for a spin at the Hertz Corporation Hackathon held April 19-20, 2013. Class of 2013 masters students Kaushik Gopal, Sumeet Kumar, Clyde Li, David Pfeffer and Sean Xiao, along with 2005 alumni David Jensen and his wife, Liz Jensen, won a $1500 prize sponsored by Nokia HERE and a three-month incubation at nestGSV in Redwood City, Calif., for their connected car interface.

Hertz plans to install tablets in its rental vehicle fleet this summer, thereby requiring new apps in its effort to automate and accelerate the rental process. The almost 500 registered hackers were given access to the Hertz application programming interface to create apps, competing for $50,000 in prize money. Sponsors such as Nokia HERE, Chargepoint, Twilio, VoicePark, Kiva, RechargeCar, AT&T, xTV, Microsoft and ngConnect/Alcatel Lucent also presented their APIs for teams to integrate into Hertz’s rental car strategy. The first prize app from Team Hertz Peace of Mind allows users to purchase insurance directly from the rental car tablet.

The CMU-SV team, dubbed “Team Car Fleet Command,” chose to use the connected car experience to revolutionize the way that people rent a car. Tesla Motors models, the GM Onstar and Chevy Volt are vehicles with mobile interfaces available to its owners. Team Car Fleet Command created an interface that extends that access to rental drivers once they rent the car from their smartphone and ends it upon the car’s return. Once access is granted, drivers can perform user functions such as unlocking the doors simply with the app. The team also upgraded the in-console experience by adding features such as a charging spots and parking spots map synced with VoicePark, a startup in Palo Alto. Documents like the rental contract and Hertz FAQs can also be pushed to the dashboard, allowing for convenient access by renters.

Lest Hertz be left out, Team Car Fleet Command also built an administrative console, which allows Hertz to manage their rental cars from a central location and review each car’s location, rental schedule and battery life, among other specifications. Though the team created a bevy of features in just 48 hours, a number of features such as the ability to remotely start and stop charging electric vehicles had to be left on the docket for future implementation.

“I was simply amazed at the amount of work we were able to accomplish in one night with this team,” said alumni member, David Jensen. “We built so much that we actually had to stop a few hours before the deadline to stop adding features because we wouldn't have time to demo everything.”

David Pfeffer, who took on the project manager role for Team Car Fleet Command believes the connected car experience is a market with a huge potential for growth as car manufacturers like Tesla Motors revolutionize the automobile industry. “We realized there’s a tremendous opportunity here with an underserved market,” said Pfeffer. “We’re already seeing the seeds planted for growth now that GM is the first company to release their APIs.”

The rest of the Team Car Fleet Command’s members focused on developing the app’s different features, relying heavily on heavily on pair programming to meet the short hackathon deadlines. Gopal and Xiao*, as the team’s primary coders, expressed that they "couldn't have managed the project without a CMU-SV education."

“Everything from how to effectively pair program, to how to think creatively, to managing team priorities, we learned from the faculty at CMU-SV," reflected Gopal.

The team of software engineering students not only applied their software skills but also incorporated hardware hacking into their app, building a faraday cage for the keys. The faraday cage allows renters to unlock and lock the car with the app, doing away with the process of picking up a physical key.

“We’ve learned some great hardware techniques in the new Connected Embedded Systems concentration classes at CMU-SV, so it’s great that we, as primarily software students, have also gotten the opportunity to learn hardware processes and apply those skills to this hackathon,” said Pfeffer.

The team’s work has not only garnered a $1500 cash prize from Nokia HERE and a three-month incubation at nestGSV but also captured the attention of Tesla Motors, which is interested in creating a fleet management tool with many of the same features Team Car Fleet Command demoed at the hackathon. Looking forward, the team members are confident that leveraging the power of their CMU-SV education and network will continue to translate into success beyond simply a 48-hour hackathon.

“It was incredibly powerful to see what’s possible with the right team,” said Pfeffer. “I couldn’t imagine doing this a different way – with a different team or a different graduate program.” ♦

*Sean Xiao and Clyde Li were also members of the first place CMU-SV team at the April 12-13 Yahoo!-sponsored CMU-SV HTML5 Hackathon.

Pictured above (from left): Sumeet Kumar, Clyde Li, David Jensen, Liz Jensen, David Pfeffer, Sean Xiao, with John Gardner, Managing Partner at Nokia Growth Partners.