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Software, 3-D printing will power the next generation of custom cars

In-dash apps, open-source software and 3-D printing spur innovation to help make your car unique.

By Douglas Newcomb Oct 2, 2013 6:43AM

Ford 3D shift knob. Photo by Ford.Customization has always been an essential part of car culture. Even before Henry Ford uttered his famous oath to uniformity -- "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black" -- drivers have had a desire to make their vehicles their own.


And they have. A trip to the local auto parts store or cruise spot will prove that people love to trick-out their vehicles to the limits of legality and taste. While you can add all manner of physical upgrades and accessories to your car -- everything from turbochargers to Truck Nutz -- technology is starting to open up new areas of customization.


We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg now in the form of apps and open-source software. And emerging innovations like affordable 3-D printing (such as the vibrating Ford shift knob, pictured above) promises to take customization to a whole new level.

While car companies have always tried to capture a share of the customization market by offering factory-authorized accessories, the majority of the advances in customization have typically come from the aftermarket. This was true for years with in-car electronics, with the aftermarket getting the jump on car companies on everything from subwoofers to rear-seat video.


Today most of the innovation in infotainment technology is coming from automakers, who have learned that tech sells. This is due in part to vehicles becoming so electronically complex that it’s now more difficult to physically add to existing systems without giving up the factory appearance and functions -- and possibly the manufacturer’s warranty.


At the same time that dashboards have become more closed to aftermarket hardware, automakers are opening their dashes like never before to third-party software developers. Earlier this year, Ford and GM introduced programs to woo third-party developers to create apps for their individual smartphone integration and connected car platforms.


A GM spokesperson told MSN Autos that the company has already signed on close to 3,000 outside developers. "Developers are key to our plan to grow the ecosystem around the vehicle and bring more but relevant content to our vehicles, so customers have more options to personalize the content in their vehicles," she added.

To promote a standard for app development across the industry, Ford went even further by offering its Sync AppLink platform to any automaker that wants to use it -- although so far there's been no takers. Last week, Ford acquired the start-up Livio in a bid to further accelerate the pace of app development and help create an industry-wide standard. And Ford has also made available its Open XC platform, "a combination of open source hardware and software" that allows creating custom vehicle applications.

Given that other automakers have been following the lead of Ford and GM in terms of infotainment, expect to see this more “open-source” approach proliferate. The latest version of Toyota Entune system, for example, offers a limited amount of customization by arranging infotainment icons on a car’s touchscreen, as used in the Cadillac CUE and Chevy MyLink systems.


"It’s going to get interesting going forward," Jim Buczkowski, director of electrical and electronics systems research for Ford, told MSN Autos. "Having access to all these tools, it represents huge opportunity and potential. But it’s also really important to protect the systems in the vehicle, and also an owner’s personal information."


Hardcore car enthusiasts typically view these advances and the newfangled in-dash gadgets they engender as more of a distraction, if not a sign that technology is taking some of the fun out of car culture. But customization of the performance and cosmetic variety stands to benefit as well.

For example, Ford engineer Zach Nelson recently used a 3-D printer to create a cool custom shift knob. By tapping into real-time engine data using Ford's OpenXC platform, Nelson also designed the knob to vibrate at redline to teach newbies when to shift gears. The feature could also be used to help more experienced drivers recognize the best shifts points for optimal performance or to improve fuel economy.

"Using OpenXC, where designers pull data from the vehicle and migrate it to APIs and AppLink, provides a good avenue [for customization]," added Buczkowski. "Twenty years ago it was physical parts. Now that you have smartphones and other devices it brings in a new experience."


Not only will customization continue to be an important part of car culture, but the latest advances in vehicle technology will enhance and expand it.


Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

Oct 2, 2013 10:09AM
Oct 2, 2013 9:00AM
Henry Ford never uttered the frequently repeated, "...any color, s'long as it's black."
Model-Ts were available in 4 colors, when first introduced - black was not even an option. For a period of time the T was available in black only. Eventually, colors were reintroduced.
Oct 2, 2013 9:17AM

out-sourcing of coach-work, interiors, and many other components is nothing new. Rolls-Royce didn't build many, if any, of the company's first coaches. the built the frames, assembled engines and transmissions, etc, but the outer sheet metal and interior components were done by others. the same applied to many other manufacturers as well.


g.m. finally acquired fisher body company that built many of g.m.'s early luxury car coaches and interiors. even into the early sixties, most g.m. vehicles had tags that read "body by fisher."

Oct 2, 2013 9:57AM
Sounds to me like gilding a cow-patty.
Oct 2, 2013 11:02AM
Christ i'll never get the ol"lady outta da car now!!!!!!!!!!!
Oct 2, 2013 11:25AM
Have you been reading the 3DLT Blog, Doug? >> 
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