Hack your car

hacker: n.

[originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe]

1. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.

2. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations. (from the Jargon File.)

Now that we’ve got the definitions out of the way, you can see that “Hacking” is not necessarily a dirty word. To “Hack” often means to make something better than the manufacturer ever dreamed of.

You might be able to do this with your car. At the very least, if your car was manufactured after 1996, and you’re willing to make a small hardware (and possibly software) investment, you can get your car to tell  you what’s wrong with it instead of paying a shop to do it. You can be like R2D2 tapping in to the Death Star computer! It’s very possible that one use of such a system will pay for itself in lower repair bills.
This is done using the standardized OBD II (On Board Diagnostics) connector installed on all

The OBD II port

The OBD II port

modern cars. The specification puts it within a couple of feet of the driver’s seat; check the owner’s manual for the exact location.
Repair shops use a computer to read trouble codes from this connector, and you can too. You can use a laptop, iPhone, Android phone, tablet, or a specialized reader from your friendly neighborhood auto parts store. You can do a lot more with the laptop, phone or tablet than you can with the reader, though, plus you probably already have one or more of these.
I started out using a laptop and a special cable to connect to the OBD port, (Available from http://www.obd-2.com/) and this method is probably the most versatile, but now I mostly use a nifty little Bluetooth module plugged into the car and connected to my Android phone.
Once connected, not only can you read off the trouble codes the car has logged (Why is the Check Engine light on?), but you can also see real-time data (have a co-pilot read this while you concentrate on driving) on a virtual dashboard that gives way more information than any instrument panel. Things such as oxygen sensor voltage, manifold pressure, engine load, and intake temperature may be meaningless to you, or you may remember them from your backyard auto repair adventures, but the point is, you get access to a whole lot of very useful information to help you take care of your 2nd largest investment.
A lot of the time, just reading the trouble code is enough to point you in the right direction. There are plenty of websites that demystify those codes and offer helpful advice for repairs. Even if you pay a professional to do the repair, you might save some shop time and money.

Bluetooth OBD readers can be had on eBay for under $30 (sometimes as little as $10), and will

Bluetooth scan tool

Bluetooth scan tool

connect to most Android and iPhones (and the respective tablets). The most common is the ELM327, sold on Amazon and by many eBay vendors (Caution: some of the cheapos on eBay may not work with your equipment). They should also work for Bluetooth enabled laptops, however I have had little success finding reasonably priced Windows software to work with them. The ELM327 also comes in a USB version for laptops.

For Windows laptops, OBD scan tool (free from http://www.obd-2.com/) might be made to work on the Bluetooth readers, however it is designed to work with the cables sold by that company.

Torque for Android is the app I use; it has a free version and a paid version. The free version does most of what’s really useful. There are many others for both Android and iPhone. Search the respective app store for “OBD scanner, ” or similar terms. Trying a free version first is highly recommended, to be sure you can actually connect to the car’s computer.

For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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