Volkswagen Beetle – The Most Hackable Car

If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Of course it helps if your mousetrap is reliable, simple, cheap, and easy to work on. In the car world, look no further than arguably the most successful, and most hackable, car in history: the Volkswagen Type 1, more commonly known as the Beetle. The ways in which this car was modified to suit the needs of a wide range of people over its 65-year-long production run proves that great design, ease of use, and simplicity are the keys to success, regardless of the project or product.

Built by Ferdinand Porsche in 1930’s Germany, the Beetle was designed to be a car for anyone and everyone. Its leader at the time wanted a true “people’s car” (i.e. “Volkswagen”) that was affordable for a German family, could reliably travel at sustained highway speeds on the new German autobahns, and easily be repaired by its owners. The car features an air-cooled engine for simplicity and cost savings: no radiator, water pump, or coolant, plus reduced overall complexity. The engine can be easily removed by disconnecting the fuel line, the throttle cable, and the four bolts that hold it to the transaxle. The entire body is held on to the chassis by eighteen bolts and is also easy to remove by today’s standards. There’s no air conditioning, no power steering, and a rudimentary heater of sorts for the passenger cabin that blows more hot air depending on how fast the engine is running. But possibly the best example of its simplicity is the fact that the windshield washer mechanism is pressurised with air from the over-inflated spare tire, eliminating the need to install another piece of equipment in the car.

It’s not too big of a leap to realize how easily hackable this car is. Even Volkswagen realized this and used the platform to build a number of other vehicles: the Type 2 (otherwise known as the bus, van, hippie van, Kombi, etc.) the eclectic Karmann Ghia, and the Types 3 and 4. Parts of the Type 1 were used to build the Volkswagen 181, commonly referred to as “the Thing”. Ferdinand Porsche also used design elements and other parts of the Type 1 to build the first Porsche, essentially making a souped-up Beetle. The rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout of modern Porsches is a relic of this distant Beetle cousin. But the real magic is what people started doing to the Beetles in their backyards in the ’60s and 70s: turning them into buggies, off road machines, race cars, and hot rods that are still used today.

At some point around this time, a few people realized that the Beetle was uniquely suited to off-road racing. The type of suspension combined with the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout meant that even without four-wheel drive, this car could excel in desert racing. There are still classes in this race for stock Beetles and modified Beetles called Baja Bugs.

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Are Powdered Metal Fuels Just a Flash in the Pan?

It’s no secret that fossil fuels are quickly becoming extinct. As technology charges ever forward, they are disappearing faster and faster. Many of our current dependencies on fossil fuels are associated with high-energy applications like transportation. Since it’s unlikely that global transportation will ever be in decline for any reason other than fuel shortage itself, it’s imperative that we find something that can replicate the high energy density of fossil fuels. Either that, or go back to the drawing board and change the entire scope of global transportation.

Energy, especially solar and wind, cannot be created all over the world. Traditionally, energy is created in situ and shipped to other places that need it. The proposed solutions for zero-carbon energy carriers—batteries and hydrogen—all have their weaknesses. Batteries are a fairly safe option, but their energy density is pretty poor. Hydrogen’s energy density is higher, but its flammability makes it dangerously volatile to store and transport.

Recently, a group of researchers at McGill University in Canada released a paper exploring the use of metal powders as our zero-carbon fuel of the future. Although metal powders could potentially be used as primary energy sources, the transitory solution they propose is to use them as secondary sources powered by wind and solar primaries.

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Good News! It’s The Dacia 1310!

Although we’ve never had the privilege to drive one, [skaarj] tells us Dacia made some terrible cars. The Dacia 1310, a communist clone of the Renault 12, was cheap, had sixty-two horses under the hood, and was easy to maintain. The cabin, by all accounts, is a bit lacking, giving [skaarj] the opportunity to improve the instrument cluster and dash. He’s not throwing a stereo in and calling it a day – [skaarj] is upgrading his Dacia with retro-futuristic components including a vacuum tube amp, a CRT computer display, and an unspeakably small dumb terminal.

[skaarj]’s build began with a hit and run accident. With most of the body panels on the passenger side of the car removed, [Skaarj] ground some rust, rattle canned some rust proof paint, and bondoed the most offensive corrosion. Work then began on the upgraded dash, with a few choice components chosen including an old Soviet television, a hardware neural network to determine hardware faults, and a bizarre implementation of a CAN bus on a car without any of the requisite electronics.

This is one of those projects that can go on forever; there’s a lot you can do with the dashboard of a car if you’re not constrained by a suffocating desire to appear normal. In that respect, [skaarj] has this one locked up – he’s got a vacuum tube amplifier and enough CRTs in this car to add retro satellite navigation. It’s a great entry for The Hackaday Prize, as something cool is sure to come out of this project.

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The Predictability Problem with Self-Driving Cars

A law professor and an engineering professor walk into a bar. What comes out is a nuanced article on a downside of autonomous cars, and how to deal with it. The short version of their paper: self-driving cars need to be more predictable to humans in order to coexist.

We share living space with a lot of machines. A good number of them are mobile and dangerous but under complete human control: the car, for instance. When we want to know what another car at an intersection is going to do, we think about the driver of the car, and maybe even make eye contact to see that they see us. We then think about what we’d do in their place, and the traffic situation gets negotiated accordingly.

When its self-driving car got into an accident in February, Google replied that “our test driver believed the bus was going to slow or stop to allow us to merge into the traffic, and that there would be sufficient space to do that.” Apparently, so did the car, right before it drove out in front of an oncoming bus. The bus driver didn’t expect the car to pull (slowly) into its lane, either.

All of the other self-driving car accidents to date have been the fault of other drivers, and the authors think this is telling. If you unexpectedly brake all the time, you can probably expect to eventually get hit from behind. If people can’t read your car’s AI’s mind, you’re gonna get your fender bent.

The paper’s solution is to make autonomous vehicles more predictable, and they mention a number of obvious solutions, from “I-sense-you” lights to inter-car communication. But then there are aspects we hadn’t thought about: specific markings that indicate the AIs capabilities, for instance. A cyclist signalling a left turn would really like to know if the car behind has the new bicyclist-handsignal-recognition upgrade before entering the lane. The ability to put your mind into the mind of the other car is crucial, and requires tons of information about the driver.

All of this may require and involve legislation. Intent and what all parties to an accident “should have known” are used in court to apportion blame in addition to the black-and-white of the law. When one of the parties is an AI, this gets murkier. How should you know what the algorithm should have been thinking? This is far from a solved problem, and it’s becoming more relevant.

We’ve written on the ethics of self-driving cars before, but simply in terms of their decision-making ability. This paper brings home the idea that we also need to be able to understand what they’re thinking, which is as much a human-interaction and legal problem as it is technological.

[Headline image: Google Self-Driving Car Project]

After the Prize: What’s Next for the Light Electric Utility Vehicle

Winner of the third place in last year’s Hackaday Prize was [Chris Low]’s Light Electric Utility Vehicle. In case you think that once a Hackaday Prize is in the bag then that’s it and the project creator packs up and goes home, [Chris] dispels that idea, he’s invested his winnings straight back into his project and posted his latest progress on an improved Mk3 model.

Light Electric Utility Vehicle, 2015-style
Light Electric Utility Vehicle, 2015-style

We first covered the Light Electric Utility Vehicle back in June 2015 when it was first entered for the 2015 Hackaday Prize. The aim was to produce a rugged and simple small electric vehicle that could be powered by solar energy and that was suitable for the conditions found in South Sudan, where [Chris] works. The vehicle as we saw it then was an articulated design, with chain drive to bicycle-style wheels. The Mk3 version by comparison has lost the articulation in favour of rack-and-pinion steering, has in-hub motors instead of chain drive, and now features coil-spring suspension. You might comment that it has lost some of its original simplicity and become something more like a conventional electric UTV, but along the way it has also become more of a practical proposition as an everyday vehicle.

You can follow the entire build log on the Light Electric Utility Vehicle’s project page on hackaday.io, and below the break have a look at [Chris]’s video showing it in action. Continue reading “After the Prize: What’s Next for the Light Electric Utility Vehicle”

Hand Gestures Drive Car

There are a number of ways to control an automobile without using the pedals, and sometimes even without using the steering wheel. Most commonly these alternative control mechanisms are installed in vehicles whose owners are disabled in some way, but [Anurag] has taken this idea of alternative control one step further. He has built a car that can be driven by hand gestures alone.

On a remote controlled car, a Raspberry Pi 2 was installed that handles processing and communication. A wireless network is created on the Pi, and a laptop connects to the Pi over the network. The web camera on the laptop regularly captures frames at 15 fps to check for the driver’s hand gestures. The image is converted to gray scale, thresholded, contours are obtained, and the centroid and farthest points are obtained.

After some calculations are done, a movement decision is taken. The decision is passed to the Pi, which in turn, passed that to the internal chip of the car. All of the code is available on the project’s github page. [Anurag] hopes that this can be scaled up to full sized cars in the future. We’ve seen gesture-based remote controls before that rely on Sonar sensors, so it’s interesting to see one that relies strictly on image processing.

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Car Idle Alarm Helps You Stop Wasting Gas While Tweeting

[TVMiller] has a bone to pick with you if you let your car idle while you chat or text on your phone. He doesn’t like it, and he wants to break you of this wasteful habit – thus the idle-deterrence system he built that he seems to want on every car dashboard.

In the video below, the target of his efforts is clear – those who start the car then spend time updating Twitter or Instagram. His alarm is just an Arduino Nano that starts a timer when the car is started. Color-coded LEDs mark the time, and when the light goes red, an annoying beep starts to remind you to get on with the business of driving. The device also includes an accelerometer that resets the timer when the vehicle is in motion; the two-minute timeout should keep even the longest stop light from triggering the alarm.

[TVMiller] plans an amped-up version of the device built around an MKR1000 that will dump idle to moving ratios and other stats to the cloud. That’s a little too Big Brother for our tastes, but we can see his point about how wasteful just a few minutes of idling can be when spread over a huge population of vehicles. This hack might make a nice personal reminder to correct wasteful behavior. It could even be rolled into something that reads the acceleration and throttle position directly from the OBD port, like this Internet of Cars hack we featured a while back.

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