The Truth About Cars » Tuning The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 16 Jul 2014 16:33:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Tuning Exclusive: Say Goodbye to Chip Tuning – Open CAN Bus Going Away in Two Model Cycles Wed, 07 May 2014 13:55:52 +0000 nomoarpower

According to someone that I consider to be an impeccably reliable source, you can say goodbye to being able to fiddle with your car’s electronic control devices to make it go faster because chip tuning and the open CAN bus that allows it are going away.

When I saw that the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center (part of the university’s Transportation Research Institute) was going to have a groundbreaking for the new Michigan Mobility Transportation Facility, a 32 acre, simulated urban traffic environment where automotive connectivity and autonomous vehicles will be able to be tested by students, faculty and industrial engineers, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to attend. It was only a ceremonial groundbreaking, held about a 1/4 mile from the actual site of the MMTF, and there was likely just going to be some speeches from officials at the university and from Michigan’s Department of Transportation, which is paying half the cost of the $6.5 million facility. It didn’t seem that there’d be much real news at the event that couldn’t be gleaned from a press release (like the fact that several companies are joining the UMMTC as industry partners, including Bosch, Verizon, Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Xerox). Still, it was really the first nice day all spring, after a long, brutal winter, and I like Ann Arbor, having lived there for almost a decade years ago. Also, there are a number of fun-to-drive routes between my house and UofM’s north campus. While the event turned out to have as little “news” as predicted, I did find out something that will be of interest and concern to car enthusiasts, particularly those of us who like to tune their cars for more performance.

The University of Michigan’s college of engineering has had a close relationship with the auto industry that dates back about a century. The domestic auto companies and their executives have endowed engineering faculty positions as well as funded quite a bit of research at the University. Michigan’s engineering school is a major reason why Toyota, Hyundai/Kia and Mitsubishi all have their North American R&D centers in the Ann Arbor area. That’s why in addition to the various university and government employees at the ceremony, lunch and afternoon conference on the new facility that followed, there were also a number of engineers from a variety of automobile companies, vendors and firms whose business touches on vehicle connectivity.


The vendor presence explains why an old friend of mine was there. Way back in the 1980s, before the “World Wide Web”, when the “internet” meant just email and Usenet newsgroups, I was a staff member for a religious educational organization with a handful of offices around North America. It seemed like a good idea to set up a computer bulletin board system so that we could share information and communications internally as well as making our resources available to the nascent online community. I was a computer neophyte then but a friend referred me to a mutual acquaintance that I’ll call Ruby, who was a computer security professional and sat on some of the committees that established standards for the young internet. Ruby not only mentored me about early DOS based machines and software, he donated an IBM 5150 (later known as the IBM PC) with a 10 megabyte hard drive to the non-profit that I was working with, to host the BBS. Before I met him, Ruby had worked as a systems analyst and programmer for one of the major automobile companies at a time when the automobile industry was beginning to embrace the digital age in a big way. He was involved in some of the early working groups that digitally connected the auto industry. Besides the fact that he knows more about computers than anyone else that I know personally, he’s also one of the smartest people in general that I know. He’s the only person that I know who can program a computer, true a bicycle wheel and build a harpsichord.

Since then, Ruby’s worked for a variety of computer security firms, which is why he was at the event today in Ann Arbor. A few years back, a major network and data provider bought his employer and they’re now actively involved in the whole connected car thing. I spotted him at the lunch following the ceremony and when I said hello we started talking about autonomous cars. I was speaking from the perspective of a car enthusiast and I said that autonomous cars didn’t worry me. They’d probably reduce accidents from poor drivers and that all the moaning and wailing from car guys about the death of enthusiasm due to autonomous cars is a bit premature. After all, I told Ruby, when electronic ignition, electronic fuel injection and digital engine control devices came in, enthusiasts were worried that they wouldn’t be able to tinker with cars for performance, but since then we’ve seen car guys go from changing carburetor jets to “chip tuning”, making changes to the way the car’s ECU operates the engine.


That’s when Ruby said, almost matter of factly, “Yeah, but all that’s going away. The open bus will be gone in two model cycles.” Automakers currently use something called the CAN bus. Years ago computer designers decided to use the word bus (from the Latin omnibus, “for all”) to describe something that lets one part of a computer to talk to another part of the computer. The Controller Area Network is a bus standard used by automakers to allow electronic devices in a car or truck to communicate with each other. Because it is an “open” bus that allows data to flow in both directions, the CAN bus is also what lets you plug your tuning gizmo into the OBD port and change the engine mapping.


I pressed him and said that hackers would likely still be able to access control systems, and he replied, with dead seriousness, “The systems will be hardened. The only features that you’ll be able to modify are those that the automakers and regulators will let you modify.” While you might be tempted to dismiss that as conspiracy talk, the source is indeed one of the world’s experts on computer and electronic communications security. When I asked him for a reason, he said that he couldn’t get into details then and there, that we should speak later, but in brief it has to do with safety, liability and regulatory compliance. Liability seemed to be the biggest concern. With their deep pockets, any safety issue caused even by a third party application will end with litigation targeting the automakers. He noted that even Ford’s OpenXC open source interface, which encourages third party application development, only gives passive access to vehicle data and can’t control vehicle systems.


In TTAC’s recent discussion of the “line lock” feature that Ford will be offering on the 2015 Mustang, our readers touched on the topic of “Easter eggs” and hacks that let you, via the car’s infotainment system, alter some of the control systems. From what my computer security expert tells me, built in features like line lock may proliferate but while automakers may offer some trick software features with one hand, the other hand is tightening its grip over what third parties and users will be able to do. Since some of the restrictions seem to be related to the implementation of vehicle connectivity, I guess this is another reason why car enthusiasts won’t like autonomous cars.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Section 1201 and Automotive DRM: The Future is Locked Fri, 15 Nov 2013 15:15:18 +0000 Renault Zoe

This is the Renault Zoe. It’s like most EVs on the road, with its limited range, limited power, and limited usability.

Unlike the other EVs, however, the Zoe comes with DRM attached to its battery pack. In short: If you value your ability to drive the Zoe at all, then you will submit to a rental contract with the pack’s manufacturer. Should you fail to pay the rent or your lease term expires, Renault can and will turn your Zoe into an expensive, useless paperweight by preventing the pack’s ability to be recharged, consequences be damned.

It’s only the beginning.

Ever since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act came into force in 1998, one particular section has managed to do more damage to innovation than to protect the innovators: Section 1201:

No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.

The application of Section 1201 in the past has led to actions such as: The delay in disclosing copy-protection vulnerability found in Sony’s CDs; takedown notices issued by Hewlitt-Packard to researchers for publishing a security flaw in the former’s Tru64 UNIX OS; Lexmark suing anyone who sells aftermarket refilled toner cartridges; and even displacing laws meant to deal with hacking and electronic intrusion, such as the Wiretap and Electronic Communications Privacy acts.

Regarding DRM, many a gamer has experienced their favorite games rendered unplayable because the online component — having reached its end-of-life phase and, thus, the creator no longer supports the software — can no longer be authenticated. So, imagine Zoe owners one day going to work or to visit their grandmother on her death bed when, because Renault decided to no longer support the battery pack nor verify new packs, not being able to start their car. They can’t resell the EV on the used car market, and thus, can’t make some of their $23,000 back on their purchase.

Or worse, imagine if a Zoe driver and their friends were going to a major protest — like the one that led to the Battle of Seattle, for example — only to find their government told Renault to “block” charging of the pack to hinder either their progress to the action or allow the police to “say hello,” as it were.

And of course, let’s say a Zoe owner is the target of a sociopath. They bribe a Renault employee for access to the DRM through social engineering, find “the bitch” who left them, shutdown the battery at home… you can see where this is going.

Now, imagine it happening here with the theorhetical (for now) autonomous commuter pod of 2025 your sons and daughters may end up “piloting.”

At present, Representative Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., is leading a bipartisan charge to bring about the Unlocking Technology Act, designed to limit the overzealous use of the DMCA and Section 1201 to cases where real intellectual property infringement has occurred. Should this bill become law, it would go a long way to preventing the abuses that have hindered progress elsewhere from infecting the automotive industry any further.

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Ford Engineer Uses OpenXC to Build Haptic Shift Indicator Tue, 30 Jul 2013 13:57:08 +0000

Click here to view the embedded video.

When cars started getting digitized, first with fuel injection, then electronic ignition and ECUs, some enthusiasts thought that would foretell the end of hot rodding. That’s proved to be a false prophecy, what with developments like the Megasquirt engine management system, high performance “chips” and tuning via the OBD port. Last year, Ford Motor Company, which has been at the leading (some say bleeding) edge of in-car electronics and infotainment, announced the release of the OpenXC Platform. OpenXC is an application progrmaming interface, API, that makes information from the car’s various instruments and sensors available to Android applications. The idea was to open up that information to all the possibilities with which open source application developers and hobbyists might come up. The system is read only, to prevent you from damaging your car, or worse, creating an unsafe driving situation, but in terms of using that information, the possibilities are endless. To promote OpenXC, Ford has released a video of a haptic shift indicator, built into the shift knob, invented by one of their junior engineers, Zach Nelson. When you feel it vibrate, it’s time to shift.

Using a haptic feedback motor from an Xbox 360 controller, an Arduino controller, and an Android based tablet with some USB and Bluetooth hardware Nelson created a programmable haptic shift indicator that he then built into a custom shift knob that he had designed in a CAD program and printed out with a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic 3D printer.

Using engine speed, throtle position, and other engine control data, Nelson programmed different modes that tell the driver when it’s ideal to shift up (or theoretically, down as well, I suppose, if you add in data from the traction control systems). Programmed for performance, the shift knob will vibrate when approaching redline and if economy is what the driver is after, it will buzz at the best shift point for optimum fuel mileage, it can even have a tutorial mode to help drivers learn how to shift a manual transmission. For “fun”, Nelson installed a LED display on the top of his custom shifter that shows the gear position.

As part of the open source ethos, Nelson and Ford have made all of his design files, the firmware, the Android application for programming the device, and the CAD file for the shifter knob, available to the public with links at the OpenXC site. The idea is to let enthusiasts further develop the idea.

OpenXC will be available for a growing number of Ford vehicles. In the video, Nelson says that the latest car he’s tested it on is the Shelby GT500 Mustang. He talks of his sense of accomplishment when his invention worked with the 662 horsepower muscle car. My guess is that in that particular app, he had it programmed to shift at redline.

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Generation Why: A Brief History Of Import Drag Racing Thu, 23 May 2013 15:35:35 +0000 8057152832_b56038d1d3_z

Confession time: I used to be really into Import Cars and the tuning scene. My high school years coincided with the rise of The Fast and the Furious franchise, and having already been pre-disposed to loving Japanese cars, it was natural that I’d gravitate towards this niche.

Rather than the winged-and-decaled tuner show cars, I was more of a “Sport Compact Car” guy, interested in performance vehicles rather than stereos and bodykits. But every now and then, I’d pick up Super Street magazine. Not only did their coverage of domestic Japanese tuner shops and tuner cars far exceed SCC, but they also ran a sporadic series entitled “Back In The Day”, that featured interviews and archival photographs of the import car scene from as far back as the late 1970′s.

For someone who thought that the tuner scene began with the advent of the EG Civic (not really, just that was my frame of reference), it was immensely satisfying reading about the early days of modifying Toyota 22R and Datsun L-Series engines when there was next to no knowledge about modifying anything but domestic V8 engines. Reading about the early days of modified Japanese cars made me able to better relate to the enthusiasm that my parents’ generation felt for American Graffiti. As unlikely as it is, I would love to see a movie or a book that explores this era in America’s automotive history.

Sadly, most of my tuner magazines were discarded over the years, and all I have left are a few clippings from the Back In The Day Series. I have managed to find exactly one article archived online, and wanted to share it with you all. The series has no morphed into profiling vintage Japanese cars that have been modified in a contemporary style. What a shame it is that such an extensive history is inaccessible on the web.

By the way. if anyone has an extensive archive of Sport Compact Car back issues, email me, derek at ttac dot com


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The Joy of Wrenching Thu, 10 May 2012 06:11:14 +0000

Yesterday was my day off, and by “day off” I of course mean, “day in which I work my ass off sans remuneration”. No doubt this’ll strike a chord with those of you who also have older houses with plenty of, uh, character.

It was a day no thumbs would die by accidental hammer-blow: there was work to be done on the car, and they don’t call me “Spanner” McAleer just because I’m a bit of idiot. Actually, maybe they do – well anyway, to arms!

Nothing too complicated, you understand, merely a double down-pipe swap. On an automotive scale, compared to Murilee’s Impala Saga, this is about as difficult as putting on a hat.

BC’s emissions testing requirements – which have been just about to get cancelled for going on over a decade now – are a bit strict about not fiddling with your factory exhaust system. One does not simply drive into Mordor in a 300+ hp Subie and hope to renew one’s insurance. So, back to stock, and then back to not-stock.

To be honest, I’m a bit excited, and also slightly nervous. Perhaps you’ve met my co-worker, Mr. Frank Ulrich Bartholomew Arthur Richard Murphy? Whenever I get my toolbox out, he gets his toolbox out too, and sure enough one of the five 14mm bolts holding the bell-housing onto the turbo turns out to be a cast-iron bitch.

Therein lieth the challenge. Doubly so because this is not some project car that I can leave lying open on the operating table. We’re a single car family – hence the Swiss Army Knife of a WRX wagon – and the patient needs to have its intestines shoved back in, be sewn up and be back ready to ferry my wife to work upon the morrow. The clock is ticking, let’s go.

Like all would-be mechanics, I served an apprenticeship in my youth, starting with holding the trouble-light. Remember that? It was probably the first useful thing you could do for Dad, then followed by passing him wrenches and – in my case – any of a selection of hammers and mallets, the largest of which we referred to as Excalibur. As in, “It’s stuck. Hand me Excalibur.”

We did a lot of work together, Dad and I, and before you get too invested in some bucolic scene of father and son labouring side-by-side in near-telepathic harmony, I should point out that these were British cars. If ever there were experts at creating dissent between two Irishmen, it’d be the Brits.

“Will ye for f—’s sake hold the God-damned humpy hoor steady, ye spastic God-scoursed eejit!” “I am!” “No you’re God-damned not, ye great clatter of bollocks. Quit flapping yer hole and pay some f—ing attention!”

It was, I imagine, a lot like asking two R-rated Captain Haddocks try to co-operate at neurosurgery. Even today I can cram the equivalent of four Roddy Doyle novels of invective into a single sentence.

Under the Subaru, more cursing.

Why is it that even if you protectively shut your eyes while turning a bolt underneath a car, the small shower of rust only falls when you open them? And why must there always be one fastener that can’t be reached unless you lay your bare forearm directly on some sizzling portion of exhaust header? These are not problems that the average crossword enthusiast or jigsaw-puzzlist has to endure.

And yet, it wouldn’t be the same without them. It’s a whole different world underneath a car once you get the skid-plate off; who among us has not marvelled at the complexity while resting your arms after a half-hour struggle with some stubborn bolt? Particularly true if you’ve ever been underneath an ’80s turbocharged car: vacuum lines designed by M.C. Escher, fashioned by Gordias Knot, assembled by Biff Pinhole.

You don’t see much of this in a more modern car. Pop the hood on a Nissan Maxima, and the swathes of plastic cladding might as well be labelled, “Here be dragons. Hands off!”

There was a time when knowing the basics of mechanical repair was just a matter of course. When you could lift the hood and identify all the major components, diagnose, and repair them in your driveway.

That time is fading, near gone. Once, we all did our own oil-changes. Now, half the cars on the road have improperly inflated tires. As in every facet of our lives, we know less and less about more and more.

The complexity of the machines we rely on for transportation approaches Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That which we do not understand, we cannot appreciate. That which we do not appreciate, we do not love.

And so, in the not-too-distant future, perhaps an end for this irrational fascination with what’s essentially an extremely dangerous appliance. To the fella that thinks a manifold is some kind of origami instruction, how do you explain attributing a soul to a three-thousand-pound amalgam of steel, glass and rubber?

For now though, the Subaru is back together, with a little more of myself invested in her – I’m speaking literally here: skinned most of my knuckles. Changed the oil too, while I was at it, and I’d swear she was running better. Happier even?

We’re lucky, you and I. We were born in the late Cretaceous period, but in a time when it’s still okay to love these wheeled leviathans. Even when the metaphorical asteroid hits, we’ll be able to keep a few pet dinosaurs on the road as projects, or classics, or memorabilia.

I come inside and place my ruined, dirty hands on my wife’s belly, and feel my unborn child kick. What will she – or he – know of cars? Will she share her father’s obsession?

One thing’s for sure: we probably won’t tell her mother about the cursing lessons.

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