Mercedes Benz Hack-a-Thon – A Snapshot of Developing for Automotive

This weekend Mercedes Benz held a Hackathon which gave a broad snapshot of what Silicon Valley’s Best and Brightest thought of developing for Automotive. Mobile Geeks Nicole Scott was there to judge the event, so we’ve got the inside track on the 120 developers, 47 pitches and 3 finalists that are going to pitch the Mercedes Benz Executive Board in three weeks.

The car is the most expensive mobile device you’re likely to buy (unless private jet or yacht is in your future), so it’s not surprising that mobile app development is moving to it’s four wheeled counter part.  If you are wondering what some of the pitfalls are for developing for automotive and about what insights I gained from being a judge over the weekend, keep reading. If you’re only here to find out about the winners, scroll right to the end, I get verbose in my attempt to share the amazing idea’s that didn’t make the cut.

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Developing for Automotive isn’t as straight forward as a lot of other area’s, 7 year product lead time meets the update mentality of app development. The traditionally conservative automotive maker and the developer that lives on the edge of reality developing the brilliant or insane has left a disconnect between the two devices that are most mobile in your life.

The Mercedes Benz Hackathon started on Friday night with 47 pitches which were judged by a panel of 4 who gave green or red cards. This score combined with the teams collecting poker chips for fellow developers led to 21 teams, 19 of which actually made it to the Sunday pitches.  Before we move on, I have to tip my hat to a great idea that got chopped in the first round. I didn’t get him name (leave me a comment if you know it and I’ll update the article).

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He pitched an Autonomous car identification system. When we live in a world full of autonomous cars and it drive up to pick you up, how do you know it’s yours? Or if your grandma is waiting for her ride, her smartwatch can light up with the color of the car that’s coming to get her.  The idea is futuristic, but it is 100% applicable to a problem today.  How many people have jumped into the wrong Uber or Lyft?  If the car could light up it would make things a lot easier. Even some of the rejected ideas from round 1 showed great potential.

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After the teams were selected I left for the day and returned for a few hours on Saturday to check in on the progress.  They’d been through a Nest & Nokia Here Work Shop.  Disclaimer, I’m a massive Nokia Here fangirl, I actually made a video of me using it Paris PS…it’s offline capabilities just can’t be beat! Anyways…

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13 of the 19 final pitches used their API and none used Nest.  I have a vision of the future that involves my super computer car docking into my super computer house, but it seems like the developers at this event focused solely on the experience in the car. And fair enough, we’re just starting to understand the use case of apps in the vehicle and home automation is another kettle of fish.  Though it does seem odd that no one decided to make an app where the car let your Nest know when to start heating or cooling things for your arrival. Or perhaps the Nest app is so solid that no one felt the need to force a perfectly good mobile app into a car dashboard…yet another question developers are going to have to ask themselves before they look to create apps for automotive.

The pitches were 6 minutes in total, 2 on stage, 2 in a science fair style demo and 2 minutes of Q&A.  Right now I’m going to go over the teams that didn’t win because honestly, I fought for many of them.

So Close Yet So Far…

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C.A.R.V.I.S. is a more than just a personal assistant for you car, it’s re-framing your commute time from a necessary evil to one of productivity. I can imagine it doing more than going over my meeting notes on the way in, but knowing what’s going on with my car, adapting the environment to calm me down or teach me a language, or educate me on a topic. The potential for a total lifestyle branding platform was there, it’s an idea that I would like to see them keep working on.

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StreetShield should be in my car right now, fact.  It lets you know the parking regulations to help you find a parking spot and will remind you when the times almost up.  Most parking tickets aren’t from the meter running out, so it’s more than just letting you when when you need to top up, but that where you’re parked is safe. And…think autonomous car, the car can just park itself in a new spot when the time’s almost up.  The team isn’t giving up, they’re carrying on.  Like I said, I don’t understand why this isn’t in my car right now. Especially since no other parking app even comes close to the intelligence that they’ve proposed here.

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Another pitch that should be in all cars is Get Insyde.  People leave pets in their car, and sadly some people even leave kids in their cars.  If it’s too hot, AC on and alert send to the car owner.  They changed their pitch from did you forget your kid in your car? Windows get rolled down and alarm sounds.  It’s a safety feature that should just come in your car. The guys shouldn’t give up, they should grow this idea.

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Mercedes Benz Magic makes big data smooth out your drive. Basically, it’s crowd sourcing road conditions, pot hole ahead? The front facing camera on another Benz caught it and you’ll benefit with a notification to change lanes to avoid.  Think about the implications for the autonomous car…Sooooo many great things right under the surface of this idea.

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Hyperdrive takes the gamification we see in hybrid vehicles around safe driving and fuel saving and applies it to combustion engines. Love that you can compete with other users who drive the same road segments to get the best driving score.  It’s driver training, which is great.

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Tailgating Justice has crazy amounts of potential, at it’s most basic level it uses the sensors in the car to know if someone is tail gating, and take a video of them doing it. Insurance companies would love it. There are a bevy of potential applications that could be built off of this concept. A good start, but in a high stakes poker game of executive board pitches an idea that is good enough to place at your average hackathon reminds me of a age old adage…Go Big or Go Home.

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Attention Assist Plus used an Intel Real Sense depth sensing camera to detect drowsy driving. *Swoon But adding in hardware makes me want it to do other things, the Real Sense camera has insane amounts of data and capabilities, if you want to add that to the car I’m going to need more than just that. But tip of the hat, you stole my heart.

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Accidental BlackBox records the previous 15 seconds of video and in case of accident sends it in a gif, along with gps details, closest hospital and a bunch of other stuff.  Other than the terrifying thought that my Mom could get an email with a gif of my last moments, BlackBox actually suffered from a issue that plagued several of the teams which pitched at the event.  Data ain’t free and most people will want what they’ve got for streaming music.  So many great concepts felt like they dealt with keeping their hands off the users precious MB, but didn’t. Compressing the video to a gif checks one box, but continuously sending data to a blackbox is the most extreme example of how an app will eat my cars data package. If they had a compression alorythm that made a month of streaming video continuously when I drove in only a few MB…well…that’s a whole other conversation that they should be having with a patent lawyer.

And the Winner is….

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Looking back at my conversations with the teams, wrestling with the feelings that this should be in my car right now…but shouldn’t win. I can say that I am excited to track the progress of the 3 finalists. BenzPay, CoPilot and Jerri.

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BenzPay is exactly what it sounds like, a payment system for Mercedes Benz Vehicles. Credit Cards and Bitcoin. Future potential is direct payment to other vehicles, “Get out of my way for $5”.  It’s a perfect big picture pitch, inevitable and timely.

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CoPilot did something unique in that it brought social into the driving experience.  I thought if I heard another Drowsy driving pitch…then they caught my attention with a very unique twist.  Instead of using the resources of the car to keep you awake, it sources your friends to engage with you to keep your mind alert.  No friends? It’ll use trivia.  There was more to it, but as far as drowsy driving solutions goes it has a social twist that I haven’t seen before.

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Jerri is going to revolutionize the way we gas up our car. Remember when you had to bring your garbage to the dump? Of course you don’t pick up is curbside, but once upon a time it wasn’t so.  Jerri is going to intelligently know when your car is empty and arrange to have it filled while you’re at work or home.  Your tank will effortlessly be full. They’re also stepping it up that gas isn’t the only thing that comes to your car. Dry cleaning can get picked up and dropped off, fedex packages can end up in your trunk.  Single use access can be provided and your car can run your errands with out you. The ultimate personal assistant.

It’s going to be exciting to see how things progress when the teams are given full access to the Mercedes Benz API and get to work with Mercedes on business model development along side a crash course on developing on their platform.

I take part in a lot of Hackathons, I have to say what I experienced over the weekend was different in terms of vision and execution.

#HackwiththeBest at the Mercedes Benz Hackathon wasn’t about developing a product that should clearly be in your car, it was about disrupting the way we interact with our car.

I’ll be following up with the team towards the end of the month closer to the pitch to the Executive board at Mercedes Benz on July 7th.

To learn more visit Daimler here.