Hack Your Car!

You may be quite familiar with computers, tablets, and smartphones, but did you know there’s a way to have your car talk to your computer, tablet, or phone?

There is! Just as R2D2 talked to the Death Star, your computing device can ask your car how it feels, and if there’s anything wrong.

OBD_002

An OBDII connector beneath the dashboard.

All modern cars (1996-up) have a standardized connector in the cabin area within a couple of feet of the driver’s seat, called an OBDII (On-Board Diagnostics, version 2) connector. This is intended to supply information to your mechanic when he repairs the car, but you can also use it yourself, easily and inexpensively, avoiding the possibility of being scammed when that dreaded “Check Engine” light comes on.

There are specialized code readers available at auto parts stores, but they typically cost $50-$250, and the inexpensive ones don’t provide a lot of information. There is a better way.

I first got started with OBD in around 2002, when the best way was to use a special cable and a laptop. The software and cable I found is available at http://www.obd-2.com, and while it seems a bit pricey (the software is actually free, it’s the cable that costs money), it works very well for the most part.

Shape of the OBD Connector.

Shape of the OBD Connector.

Then came smartphones and tablets. It wasn’t long before someone realized that the phone or tablet was an even better way to read information from the OBD connector. One of the big advantages of a phone or tablet is that almost all of them have Bluetooth built in. There are many small Bluetooth devices designed to plug into the OBD port that will transmit the data to a Bluetooth-enabled device. Considering the awkward places some of these connectors are mounted, not having a wire in the way is a major advantage. These devices are inexpensive and available from Amazon, eBay, and others for around $20. Quality can be an issue with some of the really cheap ones, though; Your success rate may vary. I’ve bought two so far and one works with both my cars, the other only works on one of them.

Small Bluetooth OBD reader.

Small Bluetooth OBD reader.

Of course, you need an app to make sense of the signals coming from this gadget. I’ve never had an iPhone or iPad, so the app I use is an Android app called Torque. It comes in a free and paid version; the free version is adequate for basic diagnosing, the paid version only costs $5 and has many more in-depth diagnostic features.

Sceenshot from Torque.

Sceenshot from Torque.

Apps such as Torque are good for more than just finding out why the “idiot light” is on. They can present you with a virtual dashboard that will give you far more information than the instruments the factory gave you- things like coolant temperature, engine load, running MPG estimates, and much more.

Bottom line: for much less than one diagnostic fee from a shop, you can find out for yourself lots of things about your car’s performance, and be an informed consumer when you do need to visit a mechanic.

 

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