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2008/07/29

Entering Guru Meditation ....

There's really two kinds of car computing. Computing while in the car, and computing about the car.

You could do any kind of computing in the car that you could do outside the car. Games, chat, browsing, email, playing music, reading your GPS, finding large primes, etc. This is the big place you're seeing a lot of growth. This is where Microsoft is working with Ford. The car computer will talk Bluetooth, handling your phone calls and reading tracks off your MP3 player. This is an interesting place, because car computing is either going to have to read off of car culture or computer culture.

Car culture is like this: You buy a car. It will last a few good years. It will take a few good years to pay off. And if you're still driving it ten or more years later, you can still get parts. And if you're still driving it twenty years later, you can still get parts. If it's in good shape, you can sell it for a decent amount. Old cars can be and are cool.

Computer culture is like this: You buy a computer. You own it for two years. At that time, the chip company has put out procs that are twice as fast, disc companies are making hard drives that may have as much as 10 times the storage. The video card industry might've gone to the next connector format, forcing replacement for your monitor. The hard drive industry might've gone to the next connector format, forcing replacement of your drives. Old computers are considered trash by all but the most geeky.

The big question is, how do you meld these cultures?

The questions, also big but ultimately smaller than and subsets of the above question, are as follows:

  • How long until there's statutes against using AIM and the like while driving?
  • People take time to customize their user environments, especially with computers. How do you set your car up for different users?
  • People break into cars and take stereos all the time. How will in-car computers be made theftproof?
  • Your car speaks Bluetooth, so your gadgets can talk to it and do what you want them to do. Then tech changes, and the next revision of the Bluetooth protocol comes out, and your new gadgets change but your car doesn't. What happens then? Is a networking card upgrade a warranty issue?


Ultimately, car computing is going to be a sub-industry or parallel industry to the car stereo industry. This is going to be an interesting thing, as it goes, but it does miss half the story. The other half of the story is computing about your car. You can read engine data via OBD II, which is built into all cars built since 1998. (I think...) What can you get from OBD II data? Honestly, I have little clue. The guys at AutoZone who plug in to read your check engine light, he uses a gadget that talks this protocol. But it isn't and shouldn't be limited to that.

Because I'm not (yet) really sure what's all there and why you'd want to know. Drivers get speed, tach, engine heat, and a few more, plus some warning lights. Do you really need pre- and post-converter oxygen sensors? If your car needs to pass an emissions test, sure. But there are a few point I could see hacking, even before I begin to study the essentials of internal combustion.

I am sure that my car is lying to me. I drive 130 miles a day, 65 there and back, to go to work. I fill up the tank on the first day, it's still reading full when I get to work, about 90% when I get back, 60% when I get to work again, then 40% when I get back home. This is not linear. Therefore, this is not accurate. My GPS says I'm at 53 when my speedometer says I'm at 55, which might just be a small tweak, but the gas gauge thing is enough to make me think.

Autotap is one place you can go to get the hardware and software you need. I know there's open source software to deal with this, but the hardware is the iffy point. But, assuming things go well with the initial pass on car computers, I'm sure that they'll have ODB II interfaces built in.

So that's reading the car information. What about writing?

Cars are computers, too. I had an ECU go bad on a car I used to drive. A 1988 Mercury Talon. 20 years ago, cars were computers. There's a market for people to swap out the ECUs of their cars. It's part of hot-rodding them today, and I don't have much more than the sketchiest idea of how it works. But, while I'm pretty sure it'll void my warranty, I still want to know how that works, because that's where car computing becomes interesting.