Ford’s Scott Lyons: carmaker wants app creators to be a driving force

22 Oct 2015

Scott Lyons, Ford

If there is one thing Ford’s European apps chief Scott Lyons is emphatic about – ahead of a €75,000 Europe-wide developer challenge in Dublin next month – it is that developing apps for cars is not the same as developing apps for smartphones.

Lyons leads the SYNC AppLink European Business and Partner Development initiative within the Ford Connected Services and Solutions Organisation. Based in Berlin, Germany, Lyons is responsible for creating awareness and ultimately initiating partnerships with the app developer community in order to ensure their experiences are enabled to work with SYNC AppLink, which enables drivers to voice-control smartphone apps.

The former Motorola executive is the driving force behind a €75,000 Ford AppLink Developer Challenge for Europe.

The challenge, which takes place at the Web Summit in November, is for developers to create driveable apps for use with Ford’s SYNC AppLink system, which is used by more than 2m Ford vehicles worldwide.

It will also be the first time that developers have the opportunity to work with Ford’s next generation system SYNC 3 in Europe.

Irish app developers need to get in gear

Lyons said that the competition has received plenty of attention from developers from around Europe but very few Irish app developers appear to have opted to shift into the fast lane.

“AppLink is part of our Smart Mobility focus and it is all about making sure that people are staying in touch and engaged without picking up a smartphone while driving.

“Just because you are driving doesn’t mean, however, that you want to stop engaging.

“So in essence that is the challenge – create something that keeps people digitally engaged without affecting their concentration or safety while driving.

“We don’t want to call it a hackathon – that implies you disassemble something – instead we want people to come and create something, an experience that is driveable. This could be something new or something that exists but needs to be made acceptable to be used in a car.”

Lyons said that even if an app presented by developers doesn’t win the overall 24-hour challenge, Ford is open to working with them and introducing their technologies to markets around the world.

Car apps are different to smartphone apps


App developers at a recent Ford challenge in Tel Aviv, Israel

He said that Ford is partners with Apple and Google for their respective CarKit and Android Auto ecosystems but car makers also want to differentiate and give customers choice.

“What we are offering to developers is significantly more than what they are getting from others – we have dedicated engineers who will help to get their app working and also teach them what is acceptable to introduce into cars.”

Lyons said that designing an app for a car is not the same as designing an app for a smartphone and consideration for safety is as vital as introducing a new seatbelt into a vehicle.

“It’s about moving away from screen-based experiences to voice-based experiences. One of the hardest tasks we face with developers is getting them to understand the core difference between apps for cars and apps for smartphones.”

‘Before we roll out apps, we ensure they are road tested’

Lyons makes an interesting point. The smartphone app world is largely saturated but we are at the start of a whole new era where electric cars and autonomous driving experiences will transform the landscape.

Traditional manufacturers like Ford and Mercedes will have to battle it out against next generation automakers that include Tesla and potentially Google and Apple.

“We are gatekeepers to ensure that our drivers are not overly distracted by experiences. We are very selective about apps and the experiences in vehicles.”

He also said that developing for the Ford ecosystem will be different to that of developing for Apple or Android. “We can provide access to vehicle data that developers can take advantage of to create apps that interact with the odometer to advise drivers where they could get the best deal on petrol or diesel.”

Lyons said that in the coming days Ford will be introducing a new way for drivers to interact with social media without their concentration being affected.

“Out of all the apps we’ve created so far, people have asked us why not a Facebook or a Twitter app. We just didn’t think the experience would be safe. So we’ve worked with third-party developers to deliver different social experiences.

“Ours will be the best because we have taken our time and worked hard on that and we hope our customers will recognise it as a safe and compelling experience.

“In the motor environment, you are dealing with people’s lives so apps can have serious implications for people driving on the road.

“Based on our consumer insights people want more practical information and engagement such as fuel information, music and social updates.”

Lyons said that in addition to testing out car performance on tracks at the motoring giant’s Cologne operations in Germany, engineers are now testing out apps with the same intensity as vehicle diagnostics.

“Before we roll out apps, we ensure they are road tested.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years