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BMW to offer helping hand to hackers

The “i” has it: BMW is offering European customers a carport that doubles as an electric vehicle recharging station.

Aussie software coders in line to attend BMW’s international ‘hackfests’

30 Apr 2013

BMW Australia is considering sending local representatives to international ‘hacking’ events to help it develop future in-car apps with a distinctly Aussie flavour.

The German luxury car-maker’s Australian arm has told GoAuto that while it lacked the infrastructure to host a so-called ‘hackfest’ – where software developers compete to write the best in-car app – it was open to having an Australian presence at such events.

BMW hosted a competition at its North American technology centre in California last weekend that encouraged hackers to think up the mobile phone-style apps that its next generation of ‘i’-branded hybrid and electric cars will use to connect owners with the rest of the world.

The Bay Area Sustainability Hackathon, as the event is known, specifically sought technical and non-technical people – including developers, entrepreneurs, electric vehicle experts and corporate executives – “to build apps, mobile apps and hacks to address some of the issues surrounding electric vehicles and EV charging”.

“Participants will hack, eat, compete for prizes across different categories and, most importantly, network with likeminded people to work on new or current projects,” BMW said in a statement last week.

“All submissions will be reviewed by a panel of distinguished judges. Prizes include thousands of dollars in gift cards, service and product prizes being awarded across several categories including originality of the idea, ability to clearly articulate the details of the application, technologies used in its creation, and level of completion of the hack over the course of the event.”

Several other car-makers including US heavyweights Ford and General Motors and German premium brand Volkswagen have used similar competitions to devise a new generation of apps for connected vehicles of the future.

BMW Australia general manager of corporate communications Lenore Fletcher said the company planned to introduce its i3 city hatchback and the i8 sports coupe to Australia as early as next year, and thought developing apps specifically for here could help.

However, rather than host a locally flavoured hackathon, it would make more sense to send Australian app developers to international competitions.

“Would there be any value in running something like that? To actually look at and talk about Australian issues? I think it could be something that would be very, very interesting,” she said.

“One of the things we may look at is the possibility that we could send someone to that sort of function so that they can bring in the Australian slant on things.”

She said this could be important as Australia lacked some of the infrastructure needed to support in-car apps developed in Europe and the US, limiting functionality.

BMW is also starting to plan how it will connect Australian customers with ‘i’-branded cars, with thoughts now running to introduce multiple drivetrain options rather than just the Holden Volt-style range-extended model that uses a petrol engine to recharge a bank of batteries.

“Obviously vehicles that are hybrid are of great interest to Australians, range-extenders are of interest to Australia – we see applications of both of those,” Ms Fletcher said.

“But we also see applications of pure electric vehicles as well, so it’s ... what people want to do with the vehicle.”

She said one important part of the ‘i’ experience would be the relationship the car-maker built with the customer.

“It’s not just looking at lower emissions, it is looking at sharing cars like they do in Europe ... there’s been some discussion about if you buy an electric car from BMW, is it possible to that you would then have use of a normal vehicle for a number of days a year for longer trips?“It’s not just saying to the buyer: ‘Here’s the car, now go away.&rsquo.”

Mrs Fletcher said BMW would also soon start to address the problem of a lack of recharging infrastructure in Australia.

The car-maker last week announced that it would team up with a solar panel company to install sun-fuelled carports at European BMW customers’ homes to help them top up the car’s batteries.

The roof of the carport is covered in solar panels that feed into a wall-mounted control box fitted with a cord that plugs into the vehicle.

The BMW concept is similar to Nissan’s “Leaf-to-Home” system developed for its Leaf battery-powered electric vehicle that integrates it with the house’s electrical system.

Unlike BMW’s system, the Leaf-based network allows the house to draw electricity from the car in the event of a blackout.

Mrs Fletcher said BMW Australia had still not decided which business model it would introduce here once the city-friendly i3 hatchback arrived.

Options have included mobile phone-like leasing programs rather than selling vehicles outright to customers.

“It’s a very interesting subject and one that’s open to debate,” she said.

“But we will be looking at the whole-of-life use of the vehicle and the life of the person who buys the vehicle.”

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