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Ford Engineer Zac Nelson Showcases Potential for Open-Source Car Customization

  • Ford engineer uses motor from Microsoft Xbox 360® game controller to create shift knob that vibrates when a driver should shift gears in a Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 with manual transmission
  • 3D-printed prototype shift knob uses Ford’s OpenXC research platform to link devices to the car via Bluetooth®, and shares vehicle data from  the on-board diagnostics port
  • OpenXC provides an easy and inexpensive way to develop connected apps or to prototype new hardware features
DEARBORN, Mich., July 26, 2013 – An important part of the total gaming experience for hardcore video gamers is getting physical feedback through the controller as they keep their eyes on the screen. It’s called haptic feedback. For drivers of performance cars like Ford Mustang, feedback is just as important to understanding how the car is behaving.
Rookie Ford engineer Zac Nelson has harnessed the power of open-source hardware and software, 3D printing, wireless connectivity and Microsoft Xbox 360® to bring haptic feedback to a Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 through a manual shift knob that vibrates at the optimal time to change gears.
“I wanted to create something that expands the car’s capabilities and improves the experience for the driver,” said Nelson. “I decided to use OpenXC to provide a new kind of feedback for the driver through the shift knob.”
Customization and personalization have been part of the Mustang experience for nearly 50 years. The earliest ads for Mustang proclaimed it as “The Car Designed to be Designed by You!” That spirit continues today, whether following the traditional route of modifying the engines, suspension and body or the modern approach to improving the driving experience through software.
Ford’s open-source OpenXC software and hardware platform enables developers to create apps that leverage the data available through a car’s on-board diagnostics port.
Nelson, armed with a freshly minted mechanical engineering degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, joined Ford in September 2012 through the company’s college graduate program. His first assignment was at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich., where he was introduced to OpenXC.
After learning how to build a mobile app, Nelson designed one that could use real-time engine data, such as revolutions per minute, or rpm; accelerator pedal position; and vehicle speed to calculate the optimum shift points for the manual transmission. The data are transmitted from the car’s OBD-II port to a tablet computer over a wireless Bluetooth® connection using the OpenXC adapter. For testing and development purposes, the tablet uses a USB cable to send the shift knob signals to vibrate like a game controller or phone.
Nelson began by modifying a digital model of the shift knob from a Ford Focus ST, turning it into a hollow shell with room for some extra parts, and printing it with a MakerBot® Thing-O-Matic™.
He installed an Arduino controller with a mini-USB port, LED display, colored LED lights and the vibration motor from a Microsoft Xbox 360 game controller.
“The vibrating knob can be installed onto the stock shift lever, and I’ve tested it on several vehicles including Mustang and Focus ST,” Nelson says. “I decided to have a little fun with it and installed an LED display on top that shows the gear position and colored lights that glow from inside at night similar to the ambient lighting in Mustang.”
Moving the system to different vehicles only requires tuning some calibrations in the app to match the torque curve of the car. By monitoring the driver’s style through speed and the throttle pedal, the app automatically adapts its control strategy to suit what it thinks the driver is looking for. The app can be programmed to determine shift points for best performance, comfort or fuel efficiency based on modes selected by the driver.
For performance cars like Mustang, the potential for customization using OpenXC signals that there is a secure future for both tuners and developers alike.
“OpenXC is a great platform for developing connected apps and aftermarket upgrades, or quickly prototyping features that could eventually be incorporated directly into the vehicle,” Nelson says. “The basic concept of my system could be integrated directly into the car, and used on automatic-transmission vehicles with paddle shifters with electric power steering.”
Nelson has posted his app and designs for the knob and electronics on the projects page of the OpenXC platform website.
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About Ford Motor Company
Ford Motor Company, a global automotive industry leader based in Dearborn, Mich., manufactures or distributes automobiles across six continents. With about 177,000 employees and 65 plants worldwide, the company’s automotive brands include Ford and Lincoln. The company provides financial services through Ford Motor Credit Company. For more information regarding Ford and its products worldwide, please visit