OpenXC paves road for makers and tinkerers

San Jose, CA. There's not much work a maker or tinkerer can perform on a car these days—at least not without risking the warranty. As cars become more advanced, they become more inaccessible, or more of a closed, system, according to Zac Nelson, a research engineer at Ford, delivering a keynote address at EE Live yesterday. However, some accessibility might be back, he said, because of the OpenXC open-source hardware and software platform. “We want to bring people back,” he said, to the point where they can create and improve their cars' features.

He cited infotainment as an area ripe for improvement. Car infotainment features tend to lag the features of consumer devices, because a car will be on the road 10 years—much longer than you'll keep a consumer device. He also described modern cars as “sensor nodes on wheels” and asked how we might make use of the data cars generate.

Nelson described OpenXC as providing a read-only data-focused API that allows you to access data via a hardware dongle—called a vehicle interface, VI—that plugs into a car's diagnostic port. Essentially, the VI connects a vehicle's CAN bus—with its vendor-proprietary data traffic—to a USB or Bluetooth interface, with vehicle data presented as JSON objects. Available data include steering-wheel angle, speed, latitude, longitude, odometer reading, headlamp status, high-beam status, amount of fuel consumed, fuel efficiency, engine speed, torque, pedal position, and gear position.

Nelson went into some detail on his use of OpenXC to develop a haptic-feedback shift knob. Rather than relying on a dashboard lamp to signal the optimum shift point (with the driver needing to look down), the haptic knob vibrates when it's time to shift. He employed 3-D printing, an Arduino board, and parts from an Xbox to build prototypes. He also described the integration of a webcam to serve as a backup camera and the implementation of a “retro gauge” that could display a choice of analog and digital information. He even suggested that a car—on encountering lots of starts and stops, indicating a traffic jam—could play soothing music to minimize road rage.

Nelson recounted his own experience as a child wrecking and then rebuilding a go cart. That, he said, taught him the value of modification and reuse. “OpenXC offers a platform for tinkerers and innovators to create something novel,” he said. “I want to see what you can create to enhance the driving experience.”

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