BMW Encourages Hackers to Develop Sustainable Electric Car Future

By · April 30, 2013

BMW Hackathon

Here's one clear sign that the auto industry has gone digital: BMW this past weekend dangled free food—in a groovy collaborative space with bean bag chairs and techno music—to lure aspiring Bay Area technologists to concoct electric car apps. (Although I didn't see any foosball tables.)

The BMW Sustainability Hackathon, held at BMW’s Group Technology Office in Mountain View, Calif., was designed to give local software developers, entrepreneurs, EV drivers, and sustainability advocates the opportunity to meet each other, and dream up technology systems that, in the most general sense, promote sustainable transportation.

“It doesn’t have to relate to cars,” said Ronan Brennan, the event’s organizer and a senior advanced technology engineer at BMW. He works on EV charging software from the company’s Mountain View office. “How do you give people access to transport without having to rely on pure old-fashioned models? Build a car, sell a car, and only one person drives it." BMW's electric vehicle program grew out of its "mega-city" project, which seeks to address the problems of mobility in major urban areas that are increasingly clogged with cars and traffic.

BMW held a similar hands-on event in November 2012 in New York City as part of a world tour to introduce the BMW i3 electric car and the exotic i8 plug-in hybrid. Ideas that emerged from the New York event included a peer-to-peer system for making farmer’s markets even more local—and a mash-up of charging network and parking apps to make it easier for EV drivers to use a public charger at a fee-based parking garage without having to run multiple apps.

BMW Hackathon

The goal was to stir ideas rather than necessarily produce a commercialized software product—although BMW iVentures has invested in the Park-at-my-House app, as well as ChargePoint. The Bay Area hackathon was sponsored by Chargepoint and DriveNow, BMW’s electric car sharing company.

Seeds of Change

At the Bay Area event, about 50 participants received the basic ground rules in the morning, and started pitching ideas to one another. “Sometimes people come in with a fixed idea, and say I want to build this. I need a programmer,” said Brennan. “But most of the time people have half an idea, and it’s a brainstorm.”

Teams were formed based on the pitches, and were off and running. By Saturday afternoon, the ideas started taking shape.

There was an app that allows EV drivers to anonymously email each other using license plate numbers as identification. This will allow plug-in car owners to easily communicate when a car can be safely unplugged, streamlining the use of public chargers. The team was made of people who previously did not know each other: a web entrepreneur, an aerospace engineer, a former Coda employee, and a BMW ActiveE driver.

BMW Hackathon

A team of BMW interns devised a mash-up of Google maps, charging locations and Yelp-like sites so that EV drivers avoid wasting time when charging. Choosing the best charging location utilizes information about restaurants, shopping and movies within walking distance of the charger.

Another group hoped to develop a marketplace of vehicle resources, starting with parking, matching buyers and sellers based on desired prices. That idea seemed more nebulous—but perhaps seeds were already being planted for a disruptive automotive technology. Regardless, the event revealed the willingness of a major global car company to allow passionate supporters of electrified sustainable transportation to help steer the EV revolution.

Perhaps you have a big idea that BMW product planners need to hear. They appear to be listening.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.