We root our smartphones, we modify our computers, and we hack our game consoles. But how come we don’t get “inside” our cars—I mean really inside our cars—into the brains of these high-tech machines? After all, with all their processors and sensors, today’s modern cars are really just computers on wheels.
Since 1988, new cars have used electronic control modules (ECM or drive by wire) to control timing, idle, and throttle response, as well as sensors that monitor temperature, steering input, road surface and beyond. When something goes awry, the dreaded Check Engine (CE) light comes on, followed by a sinking feeling in your stomach, which is usually alleviated by a trip to the mechanic and a reduction in your savings account.
So what’s the deal with that mystical “diagnostic machine” that your mechanic plugs into your ailing car and for which he or she charges you around $100 an hour? At your independent shop, it’s typically a notebook computer with some special/pricey software that allows it to communicate with your car. At the car dealerships, it’s an even more specialized computer worth many, many thousands of dollars. Both parties use computers to tap into the OBD 2 (On-Board Diagnostics Generation 2) port of your car, which is found in all models built after 1996, to pull Diagnostic Trouble Codes (DTCs). It’s those codes that help your mechanic figure out what’s wrong with your four-wheeled friend.
You could purchase a generic OBD 2 reader and software (they don’t cost that much but they’re light on features), but you have to ask yourself “how often would I really use it if I have to take it out of storage, plug it in, and boot it up?” And, “how often does my CE light go off?”
There’s another option from Delphi and Verizon called the Vehicle Diagnostics Module (VDM). To use the VDM, you simply plug it into the OBD 2 port of your car and leave it there, turning your car into a “connected car.” The VDM connects your car wirelessly to Delphi’s file server via Verizon’s network. You simply access your car’s diagnostics via a free smartphone app or a webpage.
It’s important to highlight that the device offers more than just diagnostics. Say you have a new driver in the family who’d rather be “fast and furious” than “slow and insurance-premium friendly.” The VDM allows you to track your car’s location in real time, set up a “geo fence,” and receive email alerts if the car goes outside set boundaries or exceeds a particular speed limit. The VDM also allows you to unlock your car with your smartphone if you’re within 30 feet of the car (via Bluetooth)—no slim jim or hanger necessary—and see past driving history. There’s even a handy remote car start feature and a parking lot locator.
The Vehicle Diagnostics Module from Delphi and Verizon currently costs $250, which includes the module and two years of service. Thereafter, service is $5-per-month. The VDM is a great little device to add to your tech arsenal—it gives you greater insight into perhaps the most expensive mobile computer you’ll ever purchase (your car), and it exploits the power and versatility of today’s widely used mobile computer—the smartphone. And best of all, it’s an easy way to experience just some of the benefits of the connected car.