Car Hacking

With our trip to the Baltics just around the corner, I was contemplating the many kilometres of driving ahead and this soon had me recalling our trip across central Europe in 2006. In particular, I clearly remember how our sat-nav system thought we’d fallen off the edge of the earth when we entered Hungary. Map coverage in Czechia and Slovakia was also decidedly spotty. The latter country had no coverage at all outside of the capital, Bratislava.

In the case of the Baltic states, I knew that these countries weren’t covered at all by our system. That’s hardly surprising, because the DVD containing the maps identifies itself as being for western Europe.

That rather implies that there are other DVDs available for other regions of the continent, so I went looking on-line to see if I could find a reference to one for the area in which we’re interested.

I soon made the pleasant discovery that the 2009 Audi navigation DVD has an expanded country list that includes the Baltic states. The bad news is that Audi charges a ridiculous amount of money for an a copy of the uodated DVD: between €200-300, depending on how generous they’re feeling.

I paid this fee a couple of years ago, when Audi were offering a special deal, whereby they would update your MMI (Multi Media Interface, the car’s software user interface) to the latest version and supply you with the latest sat-nav DVD for a single, reduced price . This combination deal was being offered because Audi had just released a localised MMI translation for the Dutch market, along with spoken navigation directions in the Dutch language.

This isn’t the kind of money I feel is reasonable to demand for annual incremental improvements to the map coverage, however, so I decided that I would scout around on-line and try to find a copy of the 2009 DVD by other means.

As you might expect. it didn’t take very long.

Whilst looking for the item in question, I also discovered that my MMI was now long out-of-date; hardly surprising, really, since it had been two years since Audi performed the last one.

So, in addition to the DVD image I’d found, I also downloaded three CD images containing the latest MMI software. With information gleaned from a couple of Audi Web forums, I now possessed the necessary knowledge to initiate the update process.

Flashing your digital camera or PlayStation is one thing, but the prospect of bricking one’s car had me slightly more nervous than I would normally be at the prospect of installing new firmware on a piece of hardware. My nervousness only increased as the update got under way, with the software issuing grave warnings against causing any fluctuations in the supply voltage, for example by operating the windows or sun-roof.

Everything went smoothly, however, and I can report that our car is now running the very latest version of the MMI: 55.7.0 0835.

Immeasurably more pleasing, however, is that our sat-nav now boasts coverage of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Quite how good that coverage actually is, though, will become apparent in a matter of a week or so. I suspect that only certain cities will be covered, with few, if any, interconnecting roads. Still, anything’s better than nothing.

While searching for information on Audi MMI software updates, I came across a couple of interesting postings that indicated that one’s battery charge level indicator could disappear from the MMI after applying an update. This was interesting to me, because mine had disappeared two years earlier when Audi applied the last update.

I had noticed this immediately and queried Audi as to the reason. They told me that the battery meter had been removed from the latest version of the software, because it was considered unreliable.

Imagine my surprise when I read in this Audi enthusiasts’ forum that the loss of the battery meter was actually an expected, if undesirable side-effect of applying the MMI update, and that an Audi technical service bulletin (TSB), issued at the time to guide official Audi mechanics through the specifics of the new software release, indicates that the battery meter is turned off by default in the new version. In other words, it needs to be reenabled after updating.

Not only that, but a second MMI feature that allows instrument cluster settings to be modified turned out to have disappeared at the same time as the battery meter. I never use that menu, though, so I’d never noticed that it was missing until I read about it in the forum.

The main point here, of course, is that Audi had carried out the update improperly. The two features in question should have been manually restored after updating the MMI two years ago. Does no-one RTFM these days?

Further reading taught me that the missing features can be restored without the intervention of an Audi dealer. One needs only a laptop, some software and the means to connect the laptop to the car.

Needless to say, the prospect of being able to hack my own car was one that I stoically managed to resist for all of 24 hours.

Within a few days, the required cable had arrived from the US and I excitedly headed out to the car to connect my laptop to the same port used by Audi dealers to connect their much more expensive VAS 5051/5052 diagnostic computers.

A few minutes later, the missing menu entries were restored. I also took the time to enable a hidden MMI menu that allows access to a number of low level MMI settings. I can get to this menu now by holding down the CAR + SETUP buttons for five seconds.

Finally, I ran a diagnostics check of all of the control modules installed in the car. Checking these is the first thing Audi does if you take your car to the garage with some kind of complaint. Of course, Audi charges by the hour, so time spent diagnosing problems costs you as much as time spent fixing them. Using my new gear, I can find out which modules, if any, are indicating faults, before I even call Audi to make an appointment.

As it turns out, I found multiple fault conditions that Audi had failed to clear on previous visits to the garage, including some caused by them when they had decoupled certain systems in order to work on the car.

Normally, one has no insight into this kind of thing and simply has to assume that everything is being performed expertly and by the book. The missing MMI features and the failure to clear fault conditions indicate to me that the situation at an average Audi garage isn’t any better than at any other place where one would hope to find technical expertise and methodical work practices.

As usual, if you want a job done well, you have to do it yourself. There’s a very real limit to my expertise with the car, of course and tt ends well before the electronics turn into the mechanics. It’s not as if I don’t need the garage any more. On the other hand, I have, at least, managed to fix the problem that I set out to fix.

If I had called Audi about the problem, it’s possible they would have continued to claim that the menus in question were no longer available in this release of the software. It’s equally plausible that they might have been reluctant to hook up the car to their computer to fix the problem. And, of course, it’s not unthinkable that they might have simply been unable to fix it, due to the same lack of knowledge that caused the problem in the first place. It would be an awkward conversation in which I had to refer Audi to their own internal bulletin in order to educate them about the solution for my problem.

From my little excursion into the inner workings of the car’s brain, it’s clear that a good mechanic has to be at least as competent in the field of system administration. That’s hardly surprising, of course, because for years now, computers have been taking over more and more functions of the car and an increasingly large number of faults can now be diagnosed with and fixed in software alone.

Unfortunately, the ever-expanding skill set required to maintain the modern car obviously isn’t something that we, the consumer, can take for granted. For that reason, being able to make simple changes in software and run diagnostic checks is a very welcome addition to the home toolbox, to say nothing of the satisfying hacker experience of hooking up a laptop to your car.

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1 Response to Car Hacking

  1. Shawn McKenzie says:

    Nice. Glad you didn’t brick the thing. 😉

    Have a good holiday.

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