back to article There's data in your dashboard, so liberate it from Big Auto's grasp

“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 …

  1. Nate Amsden Silver badge

    can't listen to it

    over the roar of my stereo(I think cars next to me can't hear their car over my stereo either). Also not interested in driving more economical. I bought my car to have fun, which means I get shitty gas mileage(even if I drive economically the car itself doesn't get good mileage anyway cruising at 75MPH on open highway I hover around 19MPG for a pretty small car though city driving I'm sure I could boost my mileage a lot if I didn't drive the way I do). and burn my tires out probably in less than half the mileage they are rated for. I love to accelerate(and corner with torque vectoring all wheel drive plant my passengers faces into the windows), I don't like to speed(doesn't get me there much faster). I've never gotten a ticket outside of a broken tail light(last one was 11 years ago). One of my best friends is similar though he drives a Porsche, I drive a Nissan.

    The GPS in my car for some reason says I have driven a top speed of 225MPH. I've been fast, not quite that fast though(almost half).

    I live 1 mile from my office so I don't have much of a commute.

    Going on another road trip starting Friday Bay area to Vegas for a week then down to Arizona before coming back maybe swing by LA or something on the way back.

    Twin Peaks Vegas bikini contest here I come, then HP discover next week. So excited.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: can't listen to it

      You commute 1 mile each way, at 19mpg? And we wonder why the planet is fucked.

      1. Nate Amsden Silver badge

        Re: can't listen to it

        Planet is fine. Humans are fucked. Over population. Planet will heal itself over time.

        I plan to have some fun in the meantime because i know there's nothing i can do about it (realistically).

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: can't listen to it

      75MPH and you only get 19MPG?????

      I drive around 75MPH on the motorways, but get over 40MPG, what kind of thirsty monster are you driving?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: can't listen to it

        75MPH and you only get 19MPG?????

        I drive around 75MPH on the motorways, but get over 40MPG, what kind of thirsty monster are you driving?

        No kidding. I drive a 2005 Chrysler 300 4DR Sedan with the small 2.8 liter v6. It gets at least 30 mpg at 75+ mph normal highway driving with the AC on or off. At (much) higher speeds, it drops the mpg only a few miles. No more than 5 from various times measured. The striking thing was that it easily outran my 1995 Pontiac Gran Prix with its 3.0 liter engine which also got an average of 30mpg with or without the AC running.

        I just filled the 300 up the other day with 490something miles on its 16 gallon tank but that's with ""short"" trips of about 30 miles out and back since we're ~20 miles from everywhere out here in the country. No highways for at least 8 to 10 miles in any direction.

        We looked at and wanted one of those Dodge Magnums. Then we saw the mpg was horrendous at only 18city/26highway. Our ZTR lawn mower gets better mileage than that!

        1. MJI Silver badge

          Re: can't listen to it

          Dodge Magnums

          Are they as nice as Walls Magnums?

          I like the white chocolate with vanilla icecream one

  2. TeeCee Gold badge

    Interesting, but a few caveats.

    A generic device (and an el cheapo Bluetooth OBD interface coupled to a copy of "Torque" on Android is a good place to start) will read some/most of the sensors and usually the fault codes too. If you're very lucky, the fault reset function may work on your car.

    Trouble is that, while the interface is standard, manufacturers do like to make much of the data format proprietary, so to get at everything you will need that hideously expensive manufacturer's service computer....

    1. Steve Graham

      I believe the paid version of Torque comes with a programming API and the ability to get raw data, so proprietary info is not completely out of reach.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Isn't that fairly available already?

    I recall looking at this a while back, there are some small plugs with wireless connectivity that drive matching smartphone apps to do all sorts of interesting stuff, so why is this special? Because they use crowdfunding?

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Isn't that fairly available already?

      Yes, there have been all sorts of OBD-II readers, laptop dongles, and so forth for ages. I remember one that plugged into a Palm Pilot, and there have been PC-Card versions. These days you can get USB ones with smartphone apps. I have a cheap OTS OBD-II reader that I mostly use to reset the "Check Engine" light in older cars.

      This is old hat. It's likely older than a number of people reading the article.

      Note OBD-II has been required in the US since 1996, and OBD-I dates back to '91, though OBD-I wasn't standardized and so there wasn't much in the way of third-party devices for it. It's only in Europe that it only applies to "[c]ars manufactured since the turn of the millennium".

  4. theOtherJT Silver badge

    Anyone else like the old way better?

    Every problem I've ever had with every car I've ever owned has been electronic. I've spent the entire of this week off the road because my motorbike decided that it had been stolen and immobilized itself, despite the fact that mechanically it was fine.

    I know, I know it's "Progress" and I am fond of things like traction control... when they work... but I'm more and more tempted to give them up in exchange for an engine I can fix with a tool roll small enough to fit in the glove box.

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Anyone else like the old way better?

      "Every problem I've ever had with every car I've ever owned has been electronic. "

      My experience has been the opposite. The closest it's gotten to "electronic" has been corroded pins in a connector.

      Cars have come a long way from 1960/70's "Lucas Prince of Darkness" electrics.

      1. DropBear

        Re: Anyone else like the old way better?

        "Cars have come a long way from 1960/70's "Lucas Prince of Darkness" electrics."

        Oh, you reckon? Too bad that doesn't translate into ANY visible improvements - au contraire, here's a random account of a class fault plaguing untold numbers of owners of cars made around just the turn of the century, that car makers can't be bothered to give a rat's ass about or even just acknowledge - even though it's clearly fixable...

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: Anyone else like the old way better?

          Oh, you reckon? Too bad that doesn't translate into ANY visible improvements

          Yes, generalizing from your single anecdote to a categorical claim that there has been no improvement in automobile electrical and electronic systems is certainly a compelling argument. I for one am convinced.

        2. Graham Bartlett

          Re: Anyone else like the old way better?

          Thanks for the link to a website which tried to force a spyware download on me, dickhead. And an opinion based on cars that started down the production line in 1997, meaning design started about 1994. Way to go for up-to-date information.

          But I'll still answer your fact-free opinion, because I started working on car engine controllers in 1999 and spent roughly 10 years on and off since then on that, and I particularly spent a lot of time on diagnostics. So unless you've worked through a diagnostics manual with the service team lead for a manufacturer, and been out testing your fail-safe strategies on a real vehicle on a test track, then I probably do know more than you. Let me count the ways that things have improved...

          You don't have to change sparkplugs any more. When I started driving, sparkplugs were an every-year service item. Now they're usually a 100,000-mile service item. Entirely down to replacing the points with electronics. Oh, and the points, and the vacuum-advance carburettor, and the carburettor generally, and spark-plug leads on most modern cars with coil-over plugs - all gone, and all their failure modes with them. My Renault Laguna starts in the morning, every time, no questions. My old Austin Montego was not so user-friendly. And the Laguna will happily get 45mph at 80mph, where I'd be lucky to get 30mph from the Montego at that speed. My Laguna is only an 2005 plate, incidentally - hardly state of the art.

          Temperature sensors, and speed sensors on various bits of the drivetrain. Time was that these went wrong on a regular basis, and if you were lucky then you could limp the car to a garage, and if you weren't then it was a tow-truck job. Now that all these sensors are available, the engine controller can cross-check them to see whether any look dodgy, and do something sensible if there's a problem.

          Theft of cars, there's another improvement. These days that's seriously rare and mostly confined to old cars from pre-immobiliser days. If you want to steal a modern car, you either need the key or you need some wireless immobiliser cracking kit which is well beyond your basic brick-through-the-side-window brigade. Theft from cars is right up - all those people leaving satnavs in the glove box - but theft *of* cars is very low.

          Ditto radios. No-one much buys aftermarket radios any more, because they're all built in. Which means no-one is going to break into your car for the radio any more, because they have sod all resale value.

          And that's before we start talking about all the features - ABS, airbags, traction control and the like - which have saved the lives of more people than you'll meet in your life, and which are only possible because of electronics.

          Visible improvements? Well, these days your car generally "just works". Perhaps it's not "visible" to you, but that's only because you aren't correctly remembering what old cars were like. Yes, there are still design faults in cars, because cars are designed by humans and cockups happen, and manufacturers won't fix them unless they have to. Congratulations for spotting that. So I'll just say "Ford Pinto" and let you fsck off quietly with your little Beemer bug.

      2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Anyone else like the old way better?

        My experience has been the opposite. The closest it's gotten to "electronic" has been corroded pins in a connector.

        Indeed. The OP has never had a mechanical failure? That seems unlikely.

        Besides routine maintenance and flat tires - by far the most common problems I've had with cards - I've had dead batteries, shorted alternators, leaking hydraulics, cracked distributor caps, broken timing chain, dodgy ignition switch, corroded fuse socket, bad MAF sensor (failed heating wires, not an electronic issue)... I did have a Saab that tended to blow a thermistor on the cabin fan control, which I suppose is technically an "electronic" issue.

        I've seen damned few problems with the actual electronics in any of the cars I've owned in the past 25 years. And that's included some models with pretty fancy ECUs.

      3. d2

        Re: Anyone else like the old way better?

        hmmm, if you get a job in the parts dept at any German auto dealership,

        you'll get an eyeful,nay a bellyfull of bags of electrical/electronic parts that are 'given' out like candy during routine servicing...blew my mind, as was brainwashed by dear old dad, who praised teutonic iron [he had a ford] least Lucas relays et al didn't require a bank loan.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Anyone else like the old way better?

      my motorbike decided that it had been stolen and immobilized itself, despite the fact that mechanically it was fine.

      Clearly its A.I. knows you better than you think :)

    3. MJI Silver badge

      Re: Anyone else like the old way better?

      I used to have a 1978 car, fitted with an older gearbox and a slightly newer engine (I replaced a 0.9 with a 1.6)

      Electronic ignition as standard. I DETEST POINTS

    4. F0rdPrefect

      Re: Anyone else like the old way better?


      I used to have to do stuff to cars like that (other than oil/water/tyres) at least once a month.

      The current car (2011 Avensis) and the previous one (1999 Camry) only get looked at, at the recommended service intervals.

      Keys in and turn and the engine starts in all weathers, without the need to play with throttle or choke.

      Haven't had a car problem in 15 years, instead of on a regular basis, like the "simple" ones used to be.

  5. Zog_but_not_the_first
    Thumb Up

    Life in the old spanner yet

    I thought my car fixing days were over with the advent of "sealed for life" engines but when my daughter was quoted £70 just to look at a misfire fault I decided to invest £12 in a generic reader.

    The fault codes indicated the coil pack was shot so, £25 later the problem is solved, the fault light reset and dosh saved.

    1. MJI Silver badge

      Re: Life in the old spanner yet

      No, still perfectly possible to home maintain.

      I have previously stripped and rebuilt a quad cam 24v V6 to fix oil burning, and to slightly tune it.

  6. MJI Silver badge

    I have a Lynx in the tool kit

    And know what is happening.

    I found a replacement MAF was crap (under reading by 10%) so cleaned and refitted the old one, I fixed an intermittant ABS fault because I could reset all the codes after swapping out the relevant part.

    I found the temperature gauge is designed to be vague rather than be accurate.

    A code reader is now an essential part of your tool kit.

    My OBD port is NOT OBD2 compliant

  7. Ru'

    "knocking a bit as they idle in peak hour traffic"

    Have we gone back in time? Perhaps you should adjust the mixture via the steering tiller controls, or ask the awfully nice gent ahead of you with the red flag for advice?

    1. Pookietoo

      Re: Perhaps you should adjust the mixture

      If the engine is knocking at idle it probably has a cooling problem (maybe just an air-lock in the plumbing) that adjusting the mixture won't do much to change - if it does it under load then it might be running lean, but it might also be over-advanced (something that twiddling the brass levers could fix).

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Too much ether before cranking, I say. A judicious touch is best. And try to come off the low-gear pedal slowly.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Title

    I drive a manualmobile you insensitive clod!

  9. no-one in particular

    Thin OBD plugs?

    The OBD port on my car is neatly tucked away behind a panel in the glove compartment. Very easy to access in the garage but you can't put the panel back on with an OBD reader plugged in, so not great for normal driving with the reader plugged in. Have tried a cable but the plug on that is still bulky.

    Anyone know of a ribbon cable with a really low-profile plug on the end?

    1. MJI Silver badge

      Re: Thin OBD plugs?

      I can plug mine in easily, great for a quick check at traffic lights.

      New thing to watch for, people on their code readers.

  10. Terry 6 Silver badge


    "We’ve overlooked an enormous opportunity to marry automobiles".


  11. andy gibson

    More to diagnostics than just reading a fault code

    The rise of the OBD port and cheap diagnostics is a double edged sword. While it does work out cheaper to buy the kit and do your own diagnostics instead of going to a garage, it sometimes requires more advanced equipment to read live data. And some of the cheap code readers don't even pick up all the faults. On my car, a bluetooth reader and Torque didn't pick up P1351 (glow plugs) or P0402 (I've disconnected my EGR valve) whereas the proper Lexia diagnostic kit did.

    A good example is the "P" code which reports low pressure at the high pressure pump. On four occasions now I've had customers come to me after a garage and even national breakdown companies have seen this code and said "your high pressure pump is goosed, mate. £400 to replace including parts and labour". And when the fault hasn't been fixed, shoulder shrugging from the garages.

    The fault? Simply a neglected fuel filter, either the one in the engine bay, or the one built into the pump in the fuel tank. The proper kit could read fuel flow at the tank pump. And on another it was a poor electrical connection to the fuel pump. The proper diagnostic kit could read the current at the

    pump, and it was incredibly weak.

    So I'd recommend getting a second opinion from a fellow owner on a car forum for your marque. You'll probably save hundreds.

  12. Kubla Cant

    I recently bought an OBD2-USB cable from Amazon. It came with a software disk, but also with the statement that the software only runs in Windows XP. So now I'm searching Amazon for a time machine.

    1. Zog_but_not_the_first

      No need. Just drop into the nearest Gov offices.

  13. Rick Berry

    RossTech VCDS

    The Volkswagen community has known this for years. Uwe Ross of reversed engineered the Bosch controllers used by VWs, Audis, Seats, Skodas, etc. and developed his line of VCDS diagnostic cables. They do more than just report a generic code like most OBD-II cables. Well worth a look and the money.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Event Data Recorder...

    And then there's this daa being stored by your 2015 Toyota Sienna:

    This vehicle is equipped with an event data recorder (EDR). The main purpose of an EDR is to record, in certain crash or near crash-like situations, such as an air bag deployment or hitting a road obstacle, data that will assist in understanding how a vehicle’s systems performed. The EDR is designed to record data related to vehicle dynamics and safety systems for a short period of time, typically 30 seconds or less.

    The EDR in this vehicle is designed to record such data as:

    • How various systems in your vehicle were operating;

    • Whether or not the driver and passenger safety belts were buckled/fastened;

    • How far (if at all) the driver was depressing the accelerator and/or brake pedal; and,

    • How fast the vehicle was traveling.

    These data can help provide a better understanding of the circumstances in which crashes and injuries occur.

    NOTE: EDR data are recorded by your vehicle only if a nontrivial crash situation occurs; no data are recorded by the EDR under normal driving conditions and no personal data (e.g., name, gender, age, and crash location) are recorded. However, other parties, such as law enforcement, could combine the EDR data with the type of personally identifying data routinely acquired during a crash investigation.

    To read data recorded by an EDR, special equipment is required, and access to the vehicle or the EDR is needed. In addition to the vehicle manufacturer, other parties, such as law enforcement, that have the special equipment, can read the information if they have access to the vehicle or the EDR.

    ● Disclosure of the EDR data

    Toyota will not disclose the data recorded in an EDR to a third party except when:

    • An agreement from the vehicle’s owner (or the lessee for a leased vehicle) is obtained

    • In response to an official request by the police, a court of law or a government agency

    • For use by Toyota in a lawsuit

    However, if necessary, Toyota may:

    • Use the data for research on vehicle safety performance

    • Disclose the data to a third party for research purposes without disclosing information about the specific vehicle or vehicle owner

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Event Data Recorder...

      Canadian police often grab such data when they want it, they have even won some court cases saying that sometimes they can. Of course many cell phones provide them with similar data, and much more.

  15. DJ

    Favorite bumper sticker

    "Why do the British drink warm beer? Because they have Lucas refrigerators."

    1. MJI Silver badge

      Re: Favorite bumper sticker

      Because it has taste, and does not need to be frozen to be drinkable

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