Here at the Energy Department’s Vehicle Technologies Program, we’re revved up about the next great smartphone app: yours.

That’s why we’re launching the Apps for Vehicles Challenge, which is looking for the best business plans, app ideas and product designs that use open vehicle data to help vehicle owners save fuel, save money and stay safe.

Improving fuel efficiency is a national priority. With the country spending about $1 billion per day on foreign oil, the Administration spearheaded changes to fuel economy standards that will double fuel efficiency for cars and light trucks by 2025. Automotive manufacturers are working to meet this target, but everyday drivers, businesses and the public sector can also contribute toward meeting these national goals. For example, the Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Program is managing some of the most fascinating research projects and deployment programs in the country to support the cars and trucks of the future. Furthermore, in terms of what individual vehicle owners or fleet managers can do, there is an emerging set of tools that leverage open data to improve safety and fuel efficiency.

Leveraging data isn’t what most people think about when trying to save money on their cars. But there is a growing set of tools on the market that use data directly from your car to provide valuable services. For example:

  • Insurance companies are offering cheaper products by directly measuring driving behavior.
  • Smart phone navigation systems are optimizing routes based on how a commute-schedule compares to actual traffic and weather changes.
  • Start-up companies are helping consumers understand the cost and overall potential of electric drive vehicles.

The companies providing these types of services are only doing so if vehicle owners willingly chooses to share their data with a third-party provider. Related efforts such as, Blue Button and Green Button, are part of a movement to empower consumers with their own data in an easy-to-use and machine-readable format, safely and securely, while holding a consumer’s privacy as paramount.

As for the technical side, many of these new products make use of the digital data being generated by vehicles. The most common access point is something called an onboard diagnostics port (OBD)

The OBD access port looks like a large USB port under the steering wheel or dashboard and is on every car in the U.S. built after 1996. The non-proprietary information streams on the vehicle’s OBD vary slightly by manufacturer but generally include parameters like vehicle and engine speed, throttle and brake position, and engine fault status. For years, primarily mechanics and emissions inspectors using expensive equipment accessed this data. But new hardware technologies, GPS, smart consumer electronics and the advent of cloud computing is making the OBD increasingly accessible to vehicle owners.

We think that the existing applications are just beginning to explore the possibilities of open vehicle data, and that OBD diagnostic data and other sources of vehicle data have the potential to power significant improvements in vehicle efficiency and safety. To demonstrate our excitement for the potential of vehicle data for entrepreneurs and automotive enthusiasts, the Vehicle Technologies Program is sponsoring $50,000 in prizes for the best business plans and products that can improve safety and fuel efficiency through technology innovation. The deadline for the first phase of the competition is January 15, 2013; if you are interested in this competition, please register today for the Apps for Vehicles Challenge. The best plans and products will be selected for phase two of the competition, and the teams will have the opportunity to work with the Energy Department and private sector automotive experts to put their app design into action.

I look forward to seeing your submission!