“I must have seen it thousands of times,” my friend said, “but I never really noticed it before.”
My friend has recently become obsessed with something utterly common, yet almost entirely invisible. Cars manufactured since the turn of the millennium sport an on-board diagnostics port (OBD), a small, 16-pin port reminiscent of a parallel printer ports from the dot matrix era. It's usually somewhere near the car’s dashboard.
This OBD provides a digital, serial interface to the electronic systems within an automobile and provides a rich interface of queries and commands to many of an automobile’s systems.
For nearly 40 years, automobiles have greedily consumed microprocessors, but we're yet to consider them as computers with a few mechanical bits welded on. That may be because the OBD port is marketed as something that only technicians need to or should access. Or as something that can give us simple information - that red light warning you need a service - that drives us to consult technicians.
That positioning may explain why we’ve ignored the network interface squirrelled away in our dashboards.
Yet our cars have so much to tell us.
Plug a computer into the OBD port and it can learn a lot about that automobile, and, over time, about its driver too. The transport industry has known this for a while and put the data to work monitoring drivers to make sure employees aren't slacking, or speeding.
But it’s not all Big Brother. Other uses of the OBD port, just coming to light, harness the relationship between man and machine in much less threatening - and more useful - ways.
One startup, Sydney’s GoFar, recently successfully crowdfunded a little device that plugs into the OBD port, and uses your car’s data to drive a device that gamifies your driving. Drive inefficiently with GoFar, and its little dashboard display glows an angry red. Drive more efficiently, and that same display glows blue.
As you drive more with GoFar, you begin to develop a body-memory sense for the most efficient driving techniques. Within a few months, those techniques become instinctive. You’re a more eco-friendly (and safer) driver - cutting perhaps 20 per cent off your petrol bill, and your automobile makes fewer emissions than it did before you learned - under GoFar’s tutelage - how to drive more efficiently.
It’s such a simple idea. Create a feedback loop between car and driver, and let people do what they do best: learn. We’re already tuned into our automobile engines, feeling them rattle and strain as they climb hills, or knocking a bit as they idle in peak hour traffic. GoFar simply takes that idea to the next level; it’s hard to imagine a next generation of petrol engines without something like GoFar built-in. Drivers will come to expect this kind of help - just as today they expect anti-lock brakes.
But why stop there? The OBD port offers a wealth of real-time data, all of which we do absolutely nothing with. We’ve overlooked an enormous opportunity to marry automobiles - the defining technology of the 20th century - with the incredible range of digital services defining the 21st. As great as it is, I can’t help the feeling GoFar is low-hanging fruit. If it succeeds, other clever engineers will get the memo, and we’ll start to see a real era of connected cars.
Of course, network ports are also attack surfaces. There’s every indication the OBD port has the same sorts of vulnerabilities to attack. A hacker could conceivably rewrite the firmware in an automobile, instantly converting it into a one-tonne weapon.
But that capacity already exists, and will only become more prominent as GoFar and its competitors develop interesting new uses for OBD. Now that we’ve noticed this network in our cars, we can only grit our teeth, press down on the accelerator pedal, and race into this new world of connected, vulnerable, intelligent machinery. ®