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.