For a long time, many carmakers' worst nightmare involved "alterations" to their vehicles -- either by crooks with malicious intent, or by overly enthusiastic hobbyists whose handy work could result in unintended consequences.
Researchers at Ford Motor Company, including Zachary Nelson, a recent MIT graduate and an engineer with Ford, however, are willingly turning that conventional fear among car OEMs upside down, by introducing the power of the open-source community to the automotive world.
Nelson, who will be speaking at EELive! at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 3, will discuss how the Open XC open-source platform could allow people with smartphones to connect with real-time vehicle data.
Shocking? Not really.
When you think about a long tradition of Mustang enthusiasts customizing Ford's most iconic model, Nelson doesn't seem so out of line.
Designers worldwide have tinkered with stock Mustangs to make them more powerful, more appealing, and more memorable. Modifications have included everything from a simple engine adjustment for extra horsepower to the sort of candy-colored, tangerine-flake streamline makeover that evokes the era of Ed Roth, Picasso of the custom jalopy.
Now, working at the automaker's Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich., Nelson has brought that auto-cosmetic spirit back to his own research environment.
One example: Nelson has re-tasked the motor from a Microsoft Xbox 360 game controller to create an OpenXC shift knob that vibrates to signal gear shifts in a standard-transmission Mustang.
The 3D-printed prototype shift knob uses Ford's OpenXC research platform to link devices to the car via Bluetooth, and shares vehicle data from the on-board diagnostics port. Nelson has tested his prototype in a Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 that vibrates at the optimal time to shift.
OpenXC, essentially an API to a car, is a combination of open-source hardware and software that lets enthusiasts extend their vehicles with custom applications and pluggable modules. It uses standard, well known tools to open up a wealth of data from the vehicle to developers.
In essence, the mission of OpenXC is to make your car as easy to program as your smartphone.
Researchers at Ford joined up to create a standard for creating aftermarket software and hardware for vehicles.
Speaking of Ford's OpenXC research platform, Nelson explains, "We designed the platform such that people can have real-time access to the vehicle data and they can do whatever they want with that data." They can, for example, fiddle with windshield wiper blades, change vehicle speed and engine RPM, and open or close the doors.
"You can even add hardware extensions. You can take vehicle data and integrate it with new hardware you bring into the vehicle."
Indeed, Nelson didn't stop his innovation at the haptic shift knob. "I decided to have a little fun with it and installed an LED display on top that shows the gear position and colored lights that glow from inside at night similar to the ambient lighting in Mustang."
EE Live! will offer the intersection between traditional automakers like Ford and the open-source community. Meet Nelson at the keynote speech and find out what's in store for Ford's OpenXC research platform.
It may not be shocking for Ford to see Open XC alterations to its Mustang line, but it is a new and interesting twist to an old tradition. The Mustang represents the whole history of the Ford company, in its most glamorous and fast-paced light. To bring that together with technology is a powerful thing.
I would still bet that there are lawyers at Ford that had to be shouted down or bypassed to get this one out the door. I would be very curious to see a description of the interface and exactly what data can be had from it. It may just be what is already available from the OBD-II interface that is already mandated on vehicles.
@Larry, exactly. The issue is what data can be exactly had from this interface. So...what sort of things are already available as "mandated" as you say form the OBD-II interface today, and what are not?
There are a set of generic codes which are published and additional codes that automotive manufacturers have held as proprietary. The proprietary codes are usually available to scanners by or under contract to the manufacturers and very expensive. The scanners that are buyable for reasonable cost at automotive stores have limited or no access to the proprietary codes. In my opinion, this is silly and eliminating that silliness would be a good step towards increased openness. Why is it that way? To give their repair shops an advantage in repair business.
@Larry, thank you. It's interesting and 'silly' as you say that they limit the access to code because they want to give an advantage to repair shops. Meanwhile, I thought it was for the sake of 'security' of a car. Have I been misled?
I've been servicing all my cars for the last 50 years. The OBD have certainly been useful for diagnosing engine sensor/system problems.
Unfortunately, you have to spend over $3,000, even on third party scanners, to get the useful brake and chassis scanners. After replacing all the brake lines on a 2006 Buick Lucerne, I discovered that you needed the expensive scan tool in order to bleed the ABS controller. Fortunately, I had a mechanic friend who dropped by with his and we bled the brakes. To the average backyard mechanic, this would require a tow, unless you want to drive to your friendly service emporium with no brakes. In my experience, the expensive scanner will also identify an intermittent wheel speed sensor. It's also necessary to diagnose transmission problems. It will also read your AC pressures among a host of other parameters.
The issue is the old charging what the market will bear. Let's face it, the added cost of a large enough flash to store all the additional codes wouldn't be more than 10% of the price of the cheap scanners.
Giving access to the car's buses will probably result in many inadvertent code changes, necessitating an expensive trip to the dealer to set things right by changing expensive modules - a great new profit center.
I'll be watching Ford closely to see if they end up with a serious hacking problem. This is a decision that has the capability of destroying the company. After all it would be viewed as a challenge to hackers around the world. Would you continue driving a Ford if suddenly they were going out of control and crashing all around you?
Hey Larry, the data available is listed here, through a link in the Ford-specific section: http://openxcplatform.com/hardware/vehicles.html and there is lots of information on the supported hardware interfaces (including open source hardware options): http://openxcplatform.com/vehicle-interface/hardware.html
@peplin, thanks much for the reference! It looks like they are in fact using the OBD interface but are documenting it more fully. I wish I would have had something like this for my Corvette. On that car and on my wife's Chrysler van my scanner only interprets the generic codes. It certainly doesn't provide programming information as does this site for the Mustang.
Great move from Ford. Only an american company could have been the first to do such a change in the global way of thinking. I hope the other car makers will follow. I also hope it will not be limited to the usual ODB Codes that everybody already know. It could be extended to diagnostic control codes, calibration procedures, options/extensions configuration and these stuff that remain closed today.
It is a great move but a lot of car lovers are already changing computer data to improve engine power and twist the performance of the car. In addition, if general public can start twisting performance of an engine w/o enough understanding, there might be concern to not only Ford Motor but also to the safety of road users.