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Is Hacking Cars a Thing of the Past? 748

Posted by Cliff
from the as-cars-become-more-like-computers dept.
PhotoGuy asks: "I went to install a remote car starter in our Honda last week, which used to be kind of an elegant hack (like a controlled hot-wiring of your car), only to find out that additional expensive parts and modules were required, due to the anti-theft system on the vehicle, where the car's computer would not let it start, unless it received the right code from the magnetic encoding on the key! In order to install a car starter, you have to actually put a spare key to the vehicle *in* the add-on module to let the car starter do it's thing. Yeah, that makes me more comfortable, leaving a key installed the remote car starter. That sucker went back to the store pretty quickly, that's way too much work, when a dealership can do it for me. Is the slight reduction in risk of theft of your vehicle, worth that much loss of freedom of choice and control?"

"Ever since electronic ignitions, and especially ones controlled by computers, it seems the "hackability" and user-maintainability of cars has been declining. Your neighborhood grease monkey can't do much to a modern car without a bunch of electronic gear interfacing to the car's computer. It's almost a little anti-competitive.

Carbeurators, and the other mechanical systems which were fairly standard and visible and self-evident, really seem to be the equivalent of "open source", while the new computer-based systems seem to be more closed and proprietary. I know in the early days of cars with computers, there were third party ROM upgrades for performance tweaking; I'm guessing that's falling by the wayside more and more, as these systems get more and more complex.

It almost seems like a Microsoft-like statement, to tell you they're doing all of this to reduce theft, while really they're doing it to ensure you are forced into coming back to their dealerships..."

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Is Hacking Cars a Thing of the Past?

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  • by SirSlud (67381) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @01:35PM (#2666023) Homepage
    well, I, for one, don't mind losing that kind of 'freedom and control' if it helps the deployment of ignition technologies to keep non-safe drivers out of cars: breathalizer, driver licence check, etc

    to me, it is absolutely criminal that cars are not mandated to have at least some level of drunkdriving prevention. dunno if that would get in the way of alternative security systems, but if it does .. well, lets just say that the average human is a little too attached to their car in the first place :)
  • Car security (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Starbreeze (209787) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @01:36PM (#2666032) Homepage
    Honestly, I think the security is worth it. No one pays attention to car alarms going off anymore. My brand spanking new 2002 Taurus won't start unless you use a special key from the dealership with the computer chip in it. While the car came with 2 keys, it will cost me $80 each for additional keys.

    But then, I've never felt the need for a remote starter anyway. I've gotten used to walking outside in my pajamas in the winter to start the car so it can warm up while I get ready for work.
  • My Car Alarm Idea... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by idonotexist (450877) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @01:43PM (#2666115)
    ok, I've only shared this idea with friends and relatives, but I'll make it public now: a 'screaming car alarm.' Yes, a recorded scream of a woman would play should a car alarm be tripped. Now, that should get attention...
  • by jafac (1449) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @01:51PM (#2666207) Homepage
    Yup, lessee. Car running a little sluggish? Pop the hood, spin that old 10mm box-end, twist the distributor clockwise a few degrees, now I'm humming right along. Oops, getting a little hot - turn a screw on the carb - now I'm running so rich I can smell the gasoline in the exhuast.

    I drive past the smog-check stations and scoff.

    There has to be a reason why lots of people don't mind putting the time and effort into maintaining 40 year old econoboxes.

    Maybe because everything that's been offered since then has been lacking.
  • by ethereal (13958) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @02:06PM (#2666346) Journal

    I remember seeing an example of one of these systems on a "reality" TV show - they showed the cops remotely deactivating the fleeing car's engine. Of course, my first thought was: what happens when hackers figure out the frequency and the protocol and start deactivating cars on the freeway? I won't accept something like that on my car - my vehicle will be under my control, or it will be under no one's control.

  • by cavemanf16 (303184) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @02:14PM (#2666419) Homepage Journal
    That's all fine and good, but the original question still remains: Why are we being forced to go to a dealership (referred to as SATAN by the email-digest I subscribe to for my '92 Eagle Talon), to upgrade that which we could do by ourselves if stupid digital controls to limit what we can do were not put in place?

    My car's turbo boost guage is wildly inaccurate because the computer feeds it averages of the boost, not a straight reading from the turbo itself. Thankfully, I can buy an aftermarket boost guage, install it properly, and get accurate readings without circumventing the computer. This makes it much easier for me to diagnose problems with my car in the future as I have accurate readings from the turbo, not averages.

    This idea goes for all kinds of other areas of my car, as well as other cars. Besides, the driving tests here in America suck huge hairy ones! There are so many clueless drivers, without knowledge of how to actually drive a car, on the roads because of it. Just like most of the other perfectly good laws in this country (like no drunk driving laws) - if we could enforce 'em with more manpower, we wouldn't need ever more restrictive laws in the first place.

  • A few thoughts (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jabber01 (225154) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @02:24PM (#2666501)
    Auto hacking isn't dead, it's mutated and evolved. No longer can you rebuild your carburator with a Swiss Army knife, like you could on old VW Bugs.. No longer can you do those little tweaks that let you eek a few extra HP's out of your 'Cuda..

    Similarly the computer hackery of yore has passed from sight, only to be replaced with OC madness, case modification, heavy-duty server setups in one's broom closet, and so on..

    It used to be that hackers would race hard-drives across table tops, and race Mustangs down the main drag. Now, the script-kiddies and rice-boys put skins on their virus generators and Acura Type R stickers on their Dodge Neons!!!

    Flash has replaced content. It's all about appearances, and who cracks first.. Neon light kits under the chasis of either your Dell or your Civic warn that you are clearly a force to be reckoned with.. A 40 pound spoiler and a muffler the size of a coffee can are the automotive equivalent of running an animated desktop hack or semi-transparent windows - performance be damned!!

    Just as in computing, auto-hacking has simply grown, and become so widely exposed that it's attracted it's own brand of poseur. There's the wankers who put stickers on their cars, because race cars have stickers, so stickers turn mom's old beater into a renegade from Indy.. There's the wankers who assign unique audio events to every window action and have true-color, animated mouse pointers.

    Then there are guys who rewire their own auto audio systems, making sure the trunk DOES NOT rattle when they turn the music up, and those who put performance parts in and then actually USE them in motocross events. These are the overclockers and liquid-coolers of the auto-hacking world.

    Take a look at the Honda Insight [], and note the very cool side-mirror to LCD screen hack.. There is still auto-hacking.. But like real PC hacking, it takes effort, perseverence and creativity.
  • by Malc (1751) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @02:29PM (#2666544)
    My Passat has the same 1.8T engine that is used from Jettas/Golfs all the way up to Audi TTs. The computer chip that controls the engine is programmed to de-tune it compared with the Audis. Some of the things the chip does is control maximum turbo pressure, etc. Considering the price difference, I guess they don't want performance equality between VW and Audi. My Passat only gets 150hp, whereas the TT gets 225hp from the same engine. Seeing as some many components are shared with Audi, the car can easily take these changes. Another common hack is getting the tiptronic transmission re-programmed to modify the shift points and the time it takes to shift.

    There is a big market in reprogramming or replacement ECM chips... I can easily get another 40hp and perhaps better millege by going down this route. The hp can be increased further with turbo replacements, etc, but apparently, you start having to make other big changes for the car to handle 200+hp.

    Take a look around [] for some ideas... these B5 Passats are very hackable. Whether it's just plugging a laptop into the VAG-COM thing and re-programming the locks, or wiring in new tools like The Alien, or putting in Xenon lights and the Audi sport suspension.
  • by MCZapf (218870) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @02:45PM (#2666703)
    You're not a hacker, you're a fucking grease monkey.

    Hey, computer geeks stole the word "hacking" from the grease monkeys (AFAIK). Before it was ever applied to computers it used to be used exactly as this guy does: "hacking" his motercycles.

  • Ever hear of OBD-II? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by GrammarPhone (513904) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @03:52PM (#2666965)
    Your neighborhood grease monkey can't do much to a modern car without a bunch of electronic gear interfacing to the car's computer. It's almost a little anti-competitive.

    Well, since 1996, every car sold in America has required OBD-II compliance, which dictates a requirement for an interface to the engine management computer that adheres to certain government standards. As a result, with a Palm Pilot and a $200 cable, anyone can pull all sorts of nifty information from any modern car's engine computer. Not exactly "a bunch" of electronic gear, when the whole setup fits in a jacket pocket.

    One could argue that such standards are pro-competition, since one doesn't need a bunch of specialized equipment for each manufacturer (the situation prior to OBD-II). No need for a Ford computer tool, a GM computer tool, a BMW computer tool, etc...

    In short, you can still work on your own car. Just like 50 years ago, you can't do anything without the proper tools. Just happens that the tools are electronic now, rather than mechanical.

    And, like many people are going to tell you, if you don't like it, buy a TR6 and shut the hell up.

  • by logicassasin (318009) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @03:55PM (#2666981)
    It's actually quite simple - the "chip" on the key is nothing more than a resistor. In order to bypass it, you need to find it's value with a simple multi-meter. Once you have that, you need to add a few resistors, to approximate that resistance as closely as possible, to the VATS sensor wire in the ignition column.

    Most remote start kits should come with several resistors for just this reason.

    BTW, car audio/security/sales was my profession for 6 years. Back in those days, we cursed the big 3 daily for their "new innovations" that made our jobs harder.
  • by czardonic (526710) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @05:13PM (#2667650) Homepage
    Think about it. You are in your house/apartment, you here someone yelling "Fire." I'd for damn sure call 911.

    I would do the same for someone calling out in distress, but experience has shown repeatedly (at least in the US) that many people will ignore it, or rationalize that someone else must be taking care of it. People (at least in the US) just don't want to get involved in troublesome situations if they can avoid it. Someone else's problems are easy to ignore. A fire can quickly become YOUR problem.
  • by SirSlud (67381) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @05:23PM (#2667713) Homepage
    ahhhhhh .. howcome I'm on the end of a lecture about technology not solving problems. DUH! Metal detectors dont (as we learned) solve problems. They do, however, prevent some. :) Its up to the society to determine at what level a technology can infringe upon the liberty of it's citizens, thats all. I was only saying that by and large, we accept metal detectors. On the other hand, we don't accept nation ID cards. Thats cool! This is what we've decided as a society is acceptable. What I don't understand is why a breathalizer on all cars wouldn't be acceptable provided THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE IN THAT SOCIETY asked for them.

    I'm not saying the government should be free to impose it; if anything, the fact that they WOULD have to madate and force it today proves that as a society we still want to be able to bend the rules at will based on our senses of responsibility. But that may not be the case in the future ... and thats all I have to say about that!

    BTW, I'm usually the one screaming my head off about not relying on a technology or holding the percieved inferiority or inappropriateness of a given technology accountable for problems and events. About the only thing you can hold all technology for is that they /do/ alter social patterns, always and irrevocably.
  • by Y2K is bogus (7647) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @05:30PM (#2667742)
    You obviously don't know what you're talking about. Every advancement in car tuning has come at the hands of some VERY smart people. Ford doesn't publish information on how to tune their cars. Niether does GM, or Audi, or Volkswagen, or Honda, or Subaru, or BMW. All of these computers have been hacked in the truest sense of the word. There are people with logic analyzers sniffing the bus of running computers to figure out what's happening. People write emulators and disassemblers to understand where all the tables, functions, and scalars are.

    OBD-II has made it a lot easier to hack computers, but the tuning of the engine is still an art practiced by people who have learned A LOT and still don't know everything. It's rare to find an aftermarket engine that is tuned to the quality of the OEM engine, it just doesn't happen all that often.

    So what happens? There are several companies who manufacture aftermarket drop-in computers for controlling engine functions. For Fords SpeedBrain and the Ford SVO EPEC come to mind. For race cars the Edelbrock EFI, Accel DFI, Speedpro, and Motronic are used often. The upside to the aftermarket is that you get documentation and they rarely are as complex as OEM computers.

    Here's a list off the top of my head of sensors and functions a Ford EEC-IV computer controls:

    Mass Air Flow Sensor, Barometric pressure sensor, Throttle Position Sensor, Engine Coolant Temperature sensor, Air Charge Temperature sensor, O2 sensor, Vehicle Speed Sensor, Exhaust Gas Recirculator valve, Canister Purge Valve, Thermactor Control Valve, Thick Film Ignition module, Idle Stabilizer Valve, Automatic transmission accumulator pressure, 1st to 2nd gear shift point, 2nd to 3rd gear shift point, 3rd to 4th gear shift point, Torque Converter lockup RPM, Idle RPM, Automatic Transmission Drive Idle RPM, Neutral indicator, etc.

    That's just sensors and some basic interactions. Most aftermarket computers don't use half those sensors, and on top of that they are usually Manifold Absolute Pressure based rather than Mass Air Flow.

    So, as you can see, it isn't "Just buy a book". I have every book on Ford EFI, and none of them tell you the slightest thing about tuning an EEC-IV computer. Everything I've learned has been from the internet (there are enthusiasts who hack and document their hacks) and from hacking.

    I've been there, I've done computer tweaking, and I know it's not simple or trivial, it's all just hacking and guesswork.
  • by dbrutus (71639) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @06:00PM (#2667917) Homepage
    Actually, that's around today, but it's in the form of speeding ticket cameras. It's a local scandal in DC that even police are getting ticketed by these systems and it's such a pain to appeal that they're slowing down their responses to calls because they won't speed or run red lights to emergencies anymore

    $100-$200 a pop adds up on a cops salary.

  • by i0n (33788) on Thursday December 06, 2001 @08:19PM (#2668568) Homepage
    It seems wherever I go, I hear someone complaining how new cars require you to be as smart as this or that kindof scientist to work on them nowadays. I really dont feel that its true. My 50 year-old father who's been working on cars since he was 16 felt this way. I took him into the garage one day to explain some stuff about our Ford Taurus. The one thing that you have to remember is that the engine in new cars is the same engine that was in cars in 1960; there's just tons of little gadgets bolted on to them. Instead of a carburetor, you have fuel injectors shooting the fuel directly behind the intake valves. Instead of a fixed mixture of air/fuel, the computer uses sensors to figure out if the car is running to lean or too rich and adjusts the fuel spray accordingly. People always cite how much diagnostic tools cost and how the normal grease monkey or gearhead cant afford them. While there are diagnostic tools that'll hook up to computers for not all that much (~$300-$500), they're right in that the really good ones are too expensive ($2000+). The plus side though, is that these really aren't needed. Sure they make it a bit easier to check and see whether a sensor is out, but you can check your sensors with a shop manual and an ohmmeter(most Chilton's manuals have the acceptable range of resistance listed). Alternatively, there's usually a few wires on the diagnostic connector (or a diagnostic jumper on the fuse block) that you can short and cause the check engine light to blink an error code. The error code you get from this is the same code you get from using a fancy diagnostic link. You just have to look it up and you know what's wrong (or what the computer *thinks* is wrong). Need a new computer? $20 at the boneyard. Cars today aren't really very different from cars 30 years ago. I have no more trouble working on our '67 Mercury Cougar than I do working on our '98 Ford Taurus.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 06, 2001 @10:19PM (#2668980)
    I was planning on doing exactly that to my previous car, but came up with another plan instead: I kept putting it off until the car got so old nobody wanted to steal it...

    As for clubs, I've got one and I know full well it won't stop anybody determined. Neither will the VIN etchings on all the windows. What it will do though is make the thief decide to steal the car parked next to mine which doesn't have those irritants.

    I've got a Honda with that anti-theft immobilizer system. I once read a posting from a car thief mocking that system. He said that all you need is a custom-built replacement for the ignition computer that you plug in instead of the real ignition computer.

    Ok, so to steal my car you need bolt cutters for snipping the steering wheel to get rid of the club, a custom ignition module for running the engine, and even then you're stuck with a lot of useless glass because it all has the original VIN on it so it's of no use to a chop shop. Why would any car thief in his right mind steal my car instead of one without these annoyances??

There are never any bugs you haven't found yet.