While car companies are working to convince the United States government to allow them to block access to their vehicles’ computers, the Tesla Model S is showing just what creative programmers can do if they’re allowed to freely work with their cars. Instead of attempting to turn their electric cars into silent hot rods, these programmers are writing programs to gather information, track changes over time, and improve the way an intelligent car integrates into their lives.
One program in particular is called Visible Tesla. It’s the creation of a man named Joe Pasqua, who wanted to be able to track the status of various systems in his Model S over time and also be able to schedule commands. In his spare time, he decoded the way the Tesla iPhone app communicates and the company’s servers. Using that information, he wrote a program to allow him to do exactly what he wanted.
“You can do all the basic control functions,” he said. “You can unlock the doors, and you can turn on the heater or air conditioner, and you can change the temperature, open the sunroof — things like that. You can get location information; you can control the charging function.”
Being able to record data and track changes is one of Visible Tesla’s most important functions. Users can share data with each other and use it to see how changes affect their cars’ performance and range. They can learn, for example, how a particular hot spell affects their batteries. It also has the potential to give them information such as the optimal time of day to leave for work in order to maximize range.
Visible Tesla isn’t just for information tracking, though. It can also be used to trigger commands based on time and location. It can perform basic tasks, like turning on the air conditioning 10 minutes before you leave work every day, but it can also handle more complicated tasks. Pasqua has even set it up to send him reminders when he is at the grocery store.
“Our grocery store doesn’t give out bags anymore,” he said. “With Visible Tesla, I can bring up a Google map, draw a circle around a certain area, and say, ‘Send me a text message anytime I go in that area, and here’s what I want it to say.’ So when I go to my grocery store parking lot, I get a text message that says ‘Remember your bags.’”
Pasqua isn’t the only person who has figured out how to use programming knowledge to maximize his Tesla experience. Other programmers are doing similar things, even if the functionality they need sounds fairly simple. Edward Arthur, for example, wrote a script that checks his car’s charge level at 9:30 a.m. and sends him a text message if he has forgotten to plug it in to charge.
Because the Tesla Model S is designed to be updated and in some ways controlled remotely, it’s the car that’s most accessible to programmers, but other cars can run aftermarket programs as well. Many new cars come with similar apps to the one in the Model S and have the capability for Internet updates. Websites like OpenGarages.org have communities of users who enjoy tuning and modifying the programs in their cars, especially the engine control units.
While Tesla owners are often concerned with integrating the Model S into the rest of the technology in their lives, many of the users from Open Garages are interested in tweaking engine tuning to essentially hot rod their cars electronically. In an era when engines are often mechanically the same or at least very similar and produce more or less power based on what program the engine control unit is running, these users can achieve surprisingly positive results.
While Tesla isn’t very concerned with owners writing their own Model S programs, other manufacturers are not as enthusiastic. Several of them have come together hoping to find protection for their programs under digital copyright laws. If they have their way, tuners and programmers would be legally barred from modifying their cars’ ECUs and other programs.
For companies that specialize in selling ECU upgrades, it would mean the end of their businesses, and for car owners, it would mean they no longer truly own their cars. Instead, buying a car would be more like licensing its use from the manufacturer. Using an aftermarket ECU instead of a stock one may be a lot like adding extra RAM to a laptop, but if the automakers have their way, it would be illegal.
As the number of Tesla programmers shows, not everyone is interested in making their cars as fast as possible or changing how the engines run, but there is definitely interest from Tesla enthusiasts in writing their own programs. In 25 years, writing aftermarket programs could be as popular as modifying cars with new exhaust systems or body kits. But if digital copyright laws are applied to cars, an entire new industry could be squashed before it gets much of a start.