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Ford engineer hacks Xbox parts and 3-D printing into a smarter gear shift

26 July 2013

Modern cars often intimidate do-it-yourself mechanics: most come with their engines tightly covered and electronics so complex that fixing or modifying anything requires extensive experience in electrical engineering. Attempting to improve your car through hacking can quickly void your warranty, and despite the growing number of in-dash computers and other advanced software, most such systems remain black boxes for even the savviest owners.

Among all automakers, the one that's explored the idea of opening up its systems the most is Ford, which has programs underway encouraging developers to write software apps that drivers could use on the road. And one of its younger engineers has come up with an example of what's possible, building an inexpensive gear shift knob that can vibrate and light up to suggest when it's time to drop the clutch — with plans other hobbyists can easily copy.

Zachary Nelson, a recent MIT graduate hired by Ford last year, started by learning Ford's OpenXC app platform, then transforming a Ford Focus ST shift knob by re-creating a stock model with a hollowed-out interior via 3-D printing. Inside, Nelson used an Arduino controller with a mini-USB port and the vibration motor from a Microsoft XBox controller, along with a couple of LED lights and a mini LCD gear number display on top as indicators.

Those electronics were hooked out via the USB port to an Android tablet that could read OpenXC data from any car's on-board diagnostics port. Given the variety of vehicles Nelson had access to, he of course chose to test the device in a Ford Shelby GT 500, along with the Focus and Fiesta ST.

By reading data about the car's speed, engine revs and throttle position, Nelson can tune the app to emphasize either better performance or better fuel economy. He also envisions a future version that could eliminate the cables in the test setup and communicate over Bluetooth. A version of the knob — the plans for which Nelson and Ford have posted on the OpenXC site — could even help teach the vanishing art of manual transmission shifting. Until now, most shift indicators have been nothing more than dashboard lights that blink helplessly, with little input about what a driver actually wants to accomplish. Nelson's experiment shows how giving tinkerers a chance to improve things often pays off.

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