Never underestimate the power of smart people with bad ideas. I mean, that’s pretty much the entire basis for Roadkill, isn’t it? While Freiburger, Finnegan, and Dulcich can usually be found hammering out their bad ideas with rocks on the roadside (which literally happened in the most recent Roadkill Garage), two French automotive enthusiasts and computer programmers brought their smart-bad ideas into modernity: They turned a borrowed Fiat 500 into an XBox controller.
Stanislas “Pikachu” Lejay and Guillaume “zours” Heilles presented their “findings” at a December 2017 symposium for the Germany-based Chaos Computer Club. We knew we were in for a good video when Pikachu describes his relationship with cars as “If there is something stupid to do, I shall already be doing it.” We can appreciate that. In an alternate technical RK World, it’s all pretty familiar.
Pikachu borrowed his mom’s Fiat 500 and then used the OBDII port to figure out what sensors determined things like the positions of the steering wheel, pedals, and handbrake. Once he had that figured out, he wired the OBDII reader through a circuit board so those outputs mimicked an Xbox controller.
What does that mean? Well, it means that Pikachu had his mom’s Fiat in the garage, and “Dirt Showdown” projected on the wall in front of the car. To reduce stationary wear on the tires, he dropped a bit of cardboard under the wheels with a splash of oil on it. With the game running, he turned the wheel and the wheel turned in Ken Block’s Gymkhana Fiesta in the game. He gassed the Fiat and the Fiesta roared forward. And so forth. Basically, Pikachu and zours spent countless hours to do something that seems pointless but fun. Should sound familiar to Roadkill fans.
There was a small point to make, however: Because it was a borrowed car, they couldn’t hack it apart or change anything regarding the car’s operation. This was all done with non-intrusive readouts from the car’s CANBus system(s). When they were done, Mom had her Fiat back for day-to-day duties with no harm wrought.
Below is the full video presentation. The Fiat-as-controller bit starts around the 16:00 mark, but the opening offers a pretty good explanation of the CANBus system and how the duo reverse-engineered their solution.
[Pro Tip: Don’t try this with a car that you need unless you know what you’re doing.]
In short, a Controller Area Network (CAN-Bus) consists of modules for varying systems on a car that communicate with each other through digital messages. It allows more systems to communicate with more complexity, which fits with the addition of complex systems to new cars.
Each automotive company has its own CAN-Bus language and systems, but aftermarket tuning companies offer “translation” boxes that allow, for example, an LS engine to speak the same language to the chassis systems on an ND Mazda Miata.
We won’t really spend a lot of time explaining it because our friend Phillip Thomas wrote an incredible story about it for HotRod.com in November. If this at all interests you, go read Phillip’s piece on CAN-Bus.
[Hat tip to our friend Todd Stura for finding this one.]