App preview from Ford & U Mich's 'Cloud Computing in the Commute' project

App preview from Ford & U Mich's 'Cloud Computing in the Commute' project

As much as it may seem like cars are rolling computers these days, we've only seen the tip of the iceberg. Already carmakers are gearing up for the next generation of in-car computing--and we're not talking iPad mounts here. Native apps that let cars and their drivers communicate and share information on the go are starting to reach the experimental and even pre-production stages, as the latest contest at the University of Michigan's Cloud Commuting in the Commute class shows.

The class, in cooperation with Ford, developed an array of cloud computing apps--apps that rely on shared, Internet-connected sources and software--to explore the possibilities for future production vehicles. The winning app, Caravan Track, lets fellow road-trippers collaborate and comment on potential stopping points, restaurants, map fuel levels and speed, map routes, send text notifications on road hazards, and more.

The second-place app, Fuel Tracker, does just what its name suggests: tracks fuel consumption and offers real-time feedback on driving habits. It joins the cloud by letting drivers upload results and compare to other drivers along specific routes, compete for best economy, and share suggestions to improve performance. Other apps include a ride-sharing app that leverages Facebook, an in-car POI review system, a road-condition and traffic sharing service, and a POI recommendation system that learns the driver's tastes and interests.

Ford plans to put the winning app, which runs on Windows 7, into a prototype Ford Fiesta for the trip to the Maker Faire, a convention of some of the most innovative and original makers, re-purposers and invetors on the planet.

The partnership with the University of Michigan is just another way Ford is reaching outside its own walls to seek innovation in features and technology. Ford also recently launched its Ford New Ideas program, which seeks to tap its users to design and innovate new features through a social rating system. Rolled together with the recently-lauched AppLink for SYNC, Ford is rapidly moving to the head of the in-car connectedness class.

For more on the cloud computing competition, including the official press release, check out Richard Read's story over at Social Car News.