By on July 30, 2013

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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20 Comments on “Ford Engineer Uses OpenXC to Build Haptic Shift Indicator...”

  • avatar

    This sounds exactly like something I would have thought was the world’s best idea when I was an engineering student with blinders…but sorry, I just think this is an over-engineered idea. Shift lights in the dash are nothing new. 1990s GM compacts like the Cavalier had a shift light. Plenty of performance cars have shift indicators in the tach or gauge cluster. Not sure what additional value you get out of a vibrating shift knob. Two hands on the wheel at all times, except when shifting! Seems you would need your hand on the shifter most of the time to reap any benefit of a vibrating knob.

    Also, I know it’s “just for fun”, but why else would one put an electronic gear display on the knob? Who looks at the gear knob anyway? Just give me the pattern printed on the knob, or bettter yet – a gated shifter a la Ferrari.

  • avatar

    I thought current gear, engine speed, road speed and power needs tell you when to up (or even down) shift.

  • avatar

    This isn’t really a solution to the problem of manual transmissions for new drivers. Knowing when to shift is usually pretty easy based on engine sound. The hard part is learning how to feel the point where the clutch engages/disengages so that you can integrate that with the other actions that need to happen at or around the same time, i.e. moving the shifter and managing throttle.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve learned to teach that by having learners slowly let out the clutch until the car just starts moving forward, hold it, then clutch back in, without touching the gas. That way they get that muscle memory before they’re giving it 1500-2000 and trying to get everything fully engaged.

      • 0 avatar

        Best method ever.
        Revving the engine up to 2.5k to compensate an inability to find the engagement point is NOT “knowing how to drive manual”

        The gas pedal shouldn’t be necessary to get the car going if you’re on level ground.

      • 0 avatar

        As a licenced driving instructor. The way (and how I was taught and how all the books explain it and how I myself have found best) to move a car from a standstill is to set the gas pedal to a “lively hum” before raising the clutch slowly towards the biting point, then observation of the road ahead and any road users coming from behind, and then gently releasing the handbrake as the clutch starts to bite.

        Lifting the clutch when the engine is at idle speed can damage the clutch and there will be a much narrower biting point (and thus a greater chance of a stall) as the available power goes from 0% to 100% than if there are 2000 or so revs available to be fed through the clutch.

        • 0 avatar

          I’ve only taught family members but I always started with as much empty parking lot practice as they could stand.

          Then I’d head for the quietest neighborhood available with a stop sign at the top of a hill and have the newbie learn to fight gravity with revs and gradual bite.

          Back in the days of sub-100 hp cars, stick shift was a trauma to the new driver.

          • 0 avatar

            Unless the lesson is to teach them how to do bay-parking, I find that car parks are a waste of time for a moving off and stopping lesson (also you often get some jobsworth in a fluorescent tabard telling you to eff off).

            Under full instruction, the mechanical aspects of driving are relatively simple and can be taught on a quiet public road; I’m paid to teach people how to drive on the road. Besides, if the worst comes to the worst, I just take control of the clutch and brake from my side.

          • 0 avatar

            Oops, double post.

    • 0 avatar

      Not sure about that. It’s hard to hear engines in quite a few cars nowadays. And one other thing that troubles new drivers is how quickly cars run out of low gears, so they tend to over-rev in the 1st or even 2nd.

      BTW, one of the cars that I’ve driven had shift points marked as orange ticks on the speedometer from the factory, to save on a tach. It was a cheap car.

      • 0 avatar

        “shift points marked as orange ticks on the speedometer”

        Plenty of Mercedes and the like from the 60s and 70s had that. I thought it worked well enough.

        There are really 3 primary things to know:
        (1) when is the last moment to shift when accelerating as quickly as possible (i.e.: redline)
        (2) how slowly can I go before I need to downshift so that I don’t lug the engine
        (3) if I want to accelerate with vigor and so need to downshift, can I skip down a single gear or two or three

        A conventional tachometer tells you (1) and (2). The ticks on the speedometer tell you (1) and (3). So it’s really a matter of preferring knowing (2) verses (3). I’d maintain that the circumstances for (2) occur gradually as you are losing speed going up a hill or slowing down in traffic; in this case it’s pretty obvious what’s happening and a slight miscalculation is also no big deal. Missing (3), on the other hand, means you’re walking home and spending thousands of dollars in the worst case or that you shifted down less than you should have and you’re going to have to shift again and waste time at exactly the moment when you were trying to accelerate.

        A tachometer is useful and fun to watch, but I think the tick marks are fine too. Maybe cars should have both!

        • 0 avatar

          Mercedes-Benz and VW are the two brands I associate with shift points marked by dots on the speedometer. The owners’ manual of my old Audi quattro said to keep your hand off the shifter except when shifting, saying it promoted wear of the synchronizers IIRC. Old habits die hard, so the last thing I want to do is drive around waiting for my shift knob to turn into a vibrator.

  • avatar

    Personally, I think it’s cool. Like running Torq or other apps on a phone or tablet with a bluetooth OBDII dongle. The amount of information our cars are generating is amazing, and I think it rocks whenever someone comes up with an open-source hack to access or use that information.

  • avatar

    The general idea of this design isn’t to teach others to drive a stick, but simply as a “cool” or innovative take on the concept of a shift light. The tutor mode was more likely a side benefit to try and help newer drivers out with learning the finer shift points of their whip. I am really impressed with this in that it illustrates a way Ford is looking to try and rekindle the interest of the younger generations with vehicles. This is what our youngest drivers have grown up in, a world of Facebook, Twitter, Smartphones, and “Apps” and I’m a big fan of Ford opening up a platform to reach out in some way. Is it going to revolutionize car design – probably not, but its still a pretty cool idea in my book.

  • avatar

    If they get it to work as well as the haptic feedback HVAC controls on current Ford products, then no one will be in the right gear.

  • avatar

    i dont see the point

    i’ve never driven a large manual car and thought… hmmm…. i need more feedback on when to shift???

  • avatar

    Anyone think there will be new MT cars for sale in 2023?

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Yes, I remember my 1978 VW Rabbit having bright colored ticks on the speedo

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