A Look At The Most Aerodynamic Cars Ever Built

Whether gasoline, diesel, or electric, automakers work hard to wring every last drop of mileage out of their vehicles. Much of this effort goes towards optimising aerodynamics. The reduction of drag is a major focus for engineers working on the latest high-efficiency models, and has spawned a multitude of innovative designs over the years. We’ll take a look at why reducing drag is so important, and at some of the unique vehicles that have been spawned from these streamlining efforts.

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Bertha Benz Pushed The Automobile Toward Production

Who invented the automobile? The answer depends a little bit on your definition of the word. The first practical gas-powered carriage was built by Karl Benz, who later merged his company with Daimler Motor Group to form Mercedez-Benz.

Karl Benz was a design visionary whose first fascinations were with locomotives and bicycles. His 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen was the first automobile to generate its own power, which was made with a two-stroke engine and transmitted to the rear axle by a pair of chains. He didn’t think it was ready for the road, and he was mostly right.

Bertha Benz, Karl’s wife and business partner, believed in her husband’s invention. She had been there since the beginning, and provided much of the funding for it along the way. If she hadn’t taken it out for a secret, illegal joyride, the Motorwagen may have never left the garage.

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Retrotechtacular: Car Navigation Like It’s 1971

Anyone old enough to have driven before the GPS era probably wonders, as we do, how anyone ever found anything. Navigation back then meant outdated paper maps, long detours because of missed turns, and the far too frequent stops at dingy gas stations for the humiliation of asking for directions. It took forever sometimes, and though we got where we were going, it always seemed like there had to be a better way.

Indeed there was, but instead of waiting for the future and a constellation of satellites to guide the way, some clever folks in the early 1970s had a go at dead reckoning systems for car navigation. The video below shows one, called Cassette Navigation, in action. It consisted of a controller mounted under the dash and a modified cassette player. Special tapes, with spoken turn-by-turn instructions recorded for a specific route, were used. Each step was separated from the next by a tone, the length of which encoded the distance the car would cover before the next step needed to be played. The controller was hooked to the speedometer cable, and when the distance traveled corresponded to the tone length, the next instruction was played. There’s a long list of problems with this method, not least of which is no choice in road tunes while using it, but given the limitations at the time, it was pretty ingenious.

Dead reckoning is better than nothing, but it’s a far cry from GPS navigation. If you’re still baffled by how that cloud of satellites points you to the nearest Waffle House at 3:00 AM, check out our GPS primer for the details.

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What Makes A Hacker

I think I can sum up the difference between those of us who regularly visit Hackaday and the world of non-hackers. As a case study, here is a story about how necessity is the mother of invention and the people who invent.

Hackaday has overlap with sites like Pinterest and Instructables but there is one vital difference, we choose to create something new and beautiful with the materials at hand. Often these tools and techniques are very simple. We look to make things elegant by reducing the unnecessary clutter, not adding glitter. If something could be built with a 555 timer we will let you know. If there is a better choice for a processor, we will tell you.

My first real work commute was a forty-minute eastward drive every morning and a forty-minute westward drive every evening. This route pointed my car directly into the sun twice a day. Staring into a miasma of incandescent plasma for an hour and a half a day isn’t fun, and probably isn’t safe, but we can fix that.

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Wideband Woes And The Junkbox Miata

As ever, I am fighting a marginally winning battle against my 1991 Mazda MX-5, and this is the story of how I came to install a wideband oxygen sensor in my Japanese thoroughbred. It came about as part of my ongoing project to build myself a viable racecar, and to figure out why my 1990s Japanese economy car engine runs more like a late 1970s Malaise-era boat anchor.

I’ve always considered myself unlucky. My taste for early 90s metal has meant I’ve never known the loving embrace of OBD-2 diagnostics, and I’ve had to make to do with whatever hokey system was implemented by manufacturers who were just starting to produce reliable fuel injection systems.

Narrowband oxygen sensor voltage output. The output is heavily dependent on sensor temperature and highly non-linear, making these sensors unsuitable for delivering a true AFR reading.

This generally involves putting in a wire jumper somewhere, attaching an LED, and watching it flash out the trouble codes. My Mazda was no exception, and after putting up with a car that was running rich enough to leave soot all over the rear bumper, I had to run the diagnostic.

It turned up three codes – one for the cam angle sensor, and two for the oxygen sensor. Now, a cam angle sensor (CAS) fault will normally prevent the car running at all, so it’s safe to assume that was an intermittent fault to keep an eye on.

The oxygen sensor, however, was clearly in need of attention. Its job is to allow the engine control unit (ECU) to monitor the fuel mixture in the exhaust, and make sure it’s not too rich or too lean. As my car was very obviously running too rich, and the diagnostic codes indicated an oxygen sensor failure, a repair was in order.

I priced up replacement sensors, and a new oxygen sensor could be had for under $100. However, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, as not all oxygen sensors are created equal. Cars in the 80s and 90s typically shipped from the OEM fitted with what’s called a narrowband oxygen sensor. These almost always consist of a zirconia dioxide cell that outputs a voltage depending on the difference in oxygen concentration between the exhaust gas and the free air. These sensors generally sit at 0.45 V when the fuel mixture is stoichiometric, but rapidly change to 0.1 V in a lean condition and 0.9 V in a rich condition. The response is highly non-linear, and changes greatly with respect to temperature, and thus is only good for telling the ECU if it’s rich or lean, but not by how much. ECUs with narrowband sensors tend to hunt a lot when running in closed loop O2 control – you’ll see an engine at idle hunt either side of the magical 14.7 stoichiometric air fuel ratio, never able to quite dial in on the correct number.

As I intend to switch to an aftermarket ECU in the future, I’ll need to tune the car. This involves making sure the air/fuel ratios (AFRs) are correct, and for that I need to be able to properly measure them. Just knowing whether you’re rich or lean isn’t enough, as often it’s desirable to run the engine intentionally rich or lean at certain engine loads. To get a true AFR reading requires fitting a wideband oxygen sensor. These are a little more complicated.

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How Many Parts In A Triumph Herald Heater?

This Herald is in much better condition than my 12/50 was. Philafrenzy [CC BY-SA 4.0]
This Herald is in much better condition than my 12/50 was. Philafrenzy [CC BY-SA 4.0]
What was your first car? Mine was a 1965 Triumph Herald 12/50 in conifer green, and to be frank, it was a bit of a dog.

The Triumph Herald is a small saloon car manufactured between about 1959 and 1971. If you are British your grandparents probably had one, though if you are not a Brit you may have never heard of it. Americans may be familiar with the Triumph Spitfire sports car, a derivative on a shortened version of the same platform. It was an odd car even by the standards of British cars of the 1950s and 1960s. Standard Triumph, the manufacturer, had a problem with their pressing plant being owned by a rival, so had to design a car that used pressings of a smaller size that they could do in-house. Thus the Herald was one of the last British mass-produced cars to have a separate chassis, at a time when all other manufacturers had produced moncoques for years.

My 12/50 was the sporty model, it had the high-lift cam from the Spitfire and a full-length Britax sunroof. It was this sunroof that was its downfall, when I had it around a quarter century of rainwater had leaked in and rotted its rear bodywork. This combined with the engine being spectacularly tired and the Solex carburetor having a penchant for flooding the engine with petrol made it more of a pretty thing to look at than a useful piece of transport. But I loved it, tended it, and when it finally died irreparably I broke it for parts. Since then I’ve had four other Heralds of various different varieties, and the current one, a 1960 Herald 948, I’ve owned since the early 1990s. A piece of advice: never buy version 0 of a car.

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Reverse Engineering The Smart ForTwo CAN Bus

The CAN bus has become a defacto standard in modern cars. Just about everything electronic in a car these days talks over this bus, which makes it fertile ground for aspiring hackers. [Daniel Velazquez] is striking out in this area, attempting to decode the messages on the CAN bus of his Smart ForTwo.

[Daniel] has had some pitfalls – first attempts with a Beaglebone Black were somewhat successful in reading messages, but led to strange activity of the car and indicators. This is par for the course in any hack that wires into an existing system – there’s a high chance of disrupting what’s going on leading to unintended consequences.

Further work using an Arduino with the MCP_CAN library netted [Daniel] better results, but  it would be great to understand precisely why the BeagleBone was causing a disturbance to the bus. Safety is highly important when you’re hacking on a speeding one-ton metal death cart, so it pays to double and triple check everything you’re doing.

Thus far, [Daniel] is part way through documenting the messages on the bus, finding registers that cover the ignition and turn signals, among others. Share your CAN hacking tips in the comments. For those interested in more on the CAN bus, check out [Eric]’s great primer on CAN hacking – and keep those car hacking projects flowing to the tip line!