Today’s activity comes from clairvoyant Douglas J. Hickok. A practical, carriageable car computer architecture it is advised to be accessible to use in the car, but additionally calmly removable.
A practical, carriageable car computer designBy Douglas J. Hickok
What do you anticipate of aback I say “car computer”? An big-ticket appropriate allotment of accouterments that’s assuredly army in a hidden atom in your car? Probably? For the aftermost six months, I’ve been designing and architecture a carriageable computer. By portable, I beggarly it can be acquainted in as an ad-hoc server, workstation, media player, or GPS navigator aloof about anywhere — including my car. Alike admitting it was advised mostly as a car computer, who said it had to breach in my car? And at the amount of a archetypal desktop system, why should it breach on my desk? Car computers aren’t aloof for the affluent anymore?
This activity has burst abounding “rules” for acceptable car computers:
What can it do?
From the beginning, I’ve had a continued account of requirements for the system. Most of them accept been annoyed orexceeded, but a few accept collapsed apart. I’ll account the bootless ones later, with descriptions of why theydidn’t assignment out.
Ideas that didn’t assignment out:
I drive a soft-top ’95 Geo Tracker. It’s a absolute baby vehicle, but has allowance for four adults if they allegation abit. It’s aerial up so I can see, has 4-wheel drive for the Wisconsin winters, and is absolute acceptable on gas. Ithas a baby electrical arrangement because there aren’t any accessories, with a 55 amp alternator and smaller-than-normalbattery. The “trunk”, which is a absolute abbreviate amplitude amid the aback bench and the rear of the car, is aloof enoughroom for an 1800 watt car amp and bifold 12″ apostle box. I accept additionally sacrificed the basal amplitude abaft the driversseat with emergency gear, so that banned my car to basement three people. The computer can lie on the bench that’sunusable anyway.
Space is bound in the front, and I bare to acquisition allowance for a numeric keypad, a 7″ LCD touchscreen, and a 12 voltsplitter box for my three accessories. (The GPS, the screen, and the alarm detector) The splitter box fitnicely in the cuff compartment, which now looks like a rats backup of wires. The keypad can get adherent into a cupholder or centermost animate compartment. The awning was a lot added difficult because it aloof wouldn’t fit nicelyanywhere. In the end, I wire angry the screen’s included angle to a agenda box, abounding the box with pennies asa counterweight, and angry the box to the car so it couldn’t fall. So, it now sits on the top of the dash, in themiddle of the car. It works well, aback anybody in the car can see it. I allegation to acrylic the animal red boxeventually, but it’s accessible that I wasn’t activity for “pretty” aback the alpha of this project. The best partabout this bureaucracy is that I can unplug ability and video, unclip the screen, and calmly abolish it from the car. Ibought a baby bedlam accustomed case that holds the awning and GPS for accessible portability, which agency I can backpack myentire arrangement into the abode with one hand.
So far, I haven’t burst the car. Is it accessible to bung a 400 watt inverter into the 12 volt plug? Theanswer is no, aback the computer ability cull added than 150 watts and draft the 12v ability plug’s 15 amp fuse. I rana wire from the battery, through an in-line 30 amp agglutinate beneath the hood, through a dash-mounted switch, to the inverterthat is beneath the drivers seat. That was the alone absolute change to the car itself. It’s a acceptable upgradebecause now I accept a 120 volt bung for whatever ability allegation it.
In the end, I appraisal that the computer alone pulls about 10 amps. I’ve gone on continued trips with admirers running,lights on, computer on, and music on at a appropriate volume, and the array didn’t appearance any signs of actuality drained. If my car can booty the load, aloof about any car out there could booty it as well.
Most affairs are wire angry into abode so they breach out of the way. The alone cable that I use abroad is the LCDVGA cable, but it sits accurately in abode and doesn’t allegation to be wire tied. I could’ve done a able job andhidden all the wires, but that would accomplish hooking it up afore alive abundant added difficult. Besides, an excessiveamount of arresting base adds beatnik points.
All of these genitalia I had about the house…
Motherboard brand, or VIA Technologies, archetypal MV21 (I think) with congenital in sound, video, and USB.
AMD 900mhz CPU.
512 megs RAM.
40 gig laptop adamantine drive.
250 watt ability supply.
Advice: Acquisition yourself a motherboard with added congenital stuff, like LAN. The added the better, and if youdon’t use it you can usually about-face it off in the BIOS.
During the antecedent setup, I had a PCI LAN agenda and a PCI WiFi agenda absorbed to the motherboard, forth with a CD driveplugged into the additional IDE slot. After aggregate was working, I removed all three items to save on powerconsumption.
The alone appropriate cable you will allegation is a cable to affix the laptop HDD to an IDE aperture like a accustomed HDD. There are two versions out there, one is a little about-face lath that goes anon on the laptop HDD, and the otheris an absolute cable that converts it. The cable is recommended, because I couldn’t get the lath to workright. The cable is a abundant cleaner install anyway. Either one is beneath than $15, including shipping.
Finding a case
I capital article strong, alarming looking, and all-around hardcore. I was originally cerebration of a suitcase,but that’s too lame. So, I went to the army surplus abundance to see what containers were available. I was inluck; there was a $20 baby artificial ammo crate that looked perfect. It’s fabricated to authority 30, 25mm M793-style ammorounds, and absolutely it can authority a computer. It’s atramentous and covered in chicken lettering, and has a ample orangeexplosive logo. Luckily, both ends of the box open, so alive central of it will be a little easier. Bothdoors are abundant and latch shut with a metal lever.
Assembling the computer
First, I had to admeasurement aggregate and assignment about 18 bolt holes. All the bolt holes are in recessed areas, sonone of the alive will stick out above the alien carapace of the box. As the case is lying down, the motherboard isbolted to the bottom. The bare ability accumulation is anchored up-side-down to the top abaft the motherboard. The adamantine drive is busted to the basal abaft the motherboard. The ability bung and ability button are on the top bythe atomic logo. The ability button is an arcade button with the HDD LED army inside. For ventilation,I accomplished addition 24 holes in the box. I army a case fan on the added ancillary of the atomic logo, which does asurprisingly acceptable job of cooling the case. The air cycles bound because of the baby aggregate the case canhold. The blow of the blast holes I accomplished were in recessed areas in the three added corners abroad from thefan. Finally, I cut a baby rectangle in the advanced for all the basal in-car admission to the motherboard. Cooling is absolute efficient; the CPU and ability accumulation anniversary has committed admirers alarming accomplished them. The ability supplyfan is appropriate in the average of the inside. I had to put it on a articulation so I could get the motherboard aback out ifneeded. I accept abounding admission to all the admission on the advanced of the motherboard if I accessible the advanced door. And, for debugging purposes, I can accessible up the rear aperture and affix an IDE CD drive. The arrangement can’t cossack toanything USB, so it’s difficult to assignment on aback things aren’t booting correctly. There is allowance for three PCIcards if needed, but annihilation I absolutely allegation has a USB version.
I spent a lot of time acrimonious out an ideal LCD screen. What I concluded up affairs was a $275 Lilliput 7″ Touchscreen(model 619GL-70NP/C/T). It all depends on what you appetite though, and what will fit into your car. Thecheapest band-aid would be an LCD TV, but the resolution isn’t that great. Addition acceptable band-aid is to buy atrackball abrasion instead of a touchscreen, and a baby LCD that handles VGA input. The trackball can be attachedto the car’s centermost animate in a adequate place, if there’s room. I’m blessed with the Lilliput because it cando TV also, if I anytime add a DVD player, and comes with a alien control, stylus, advertisement stand, 12v car ability cable,110v home ability cable, and all the bare cables for PC and TV use. Alike admitting all you can do is blow thetouchscreen, it can click, double-click, annoyance & drop, challenge a appropriate click, and alike blazon with the Windowson-screen keyboard. It’s absolutely a able ascribe device.
At the time, the cheapest baby GPS assemblage with data-output was the Garmin Geko 201, at a amount of $115. Eventhough it’s cheap, this assemblage is great! It has all the accepted appearance in a absolutely baby package. To use thedata-out capabilities, you will allegation a appropriate cable. It’s accessible to actualize your own cable, but it was beyondmy capabilities aback I didn’t accept the appropriate accoutrement for such baby projects. The cable is about $40 at Cabela’s,and has a consecutive bung and 12v car plug. As for account the abstracts from the GPS, it’s absolute easy. The GPSoutputs NMEA strings about every two seconds, which are aloof breach afar argument data. For added advice on NMEAstrings and authoritative your own consecutive cable, see these sites:
If you’re activity for bargain and practical, a bigger addition is the Garmin GPS 18 with the arranged nRoute software,or a agnate package, for about $120. This all-in-one amalgamation is apparently the best abstraction for all thenon-programmers.
Note: Don’t accept your GPS on and affiliated to the consecutive anchorage as your computer is booting. Windows will see itas a consecutive abrasion and the arrow will jump and bang randomly. (Yeah, it took me a while to amount that oneout.)
There are two options for an alien WiFi antenna: A PCI agenda with an alien antenna, or a USB device. Honestly, I don’t apperceive why anybody chooses the added difficult one, which is a PCI or PCMCIA agenda with an externalantenna. Area would I put the antenna? It won’t stick to the soft-top. My band-aid was to purchasethe $40 Linksys WUSB54G and wire tie it to the bar beneath my bendable top. In my opinion, a USB WiFi accessory is aloof asgood as an alien antenna. I additionally accept a USB Netgear MA111 for out-of-car use.
The aegis of a Geo Tracker is horrible. If I lock my keys in my car, or if my lock is arctic on the outside,I can usually breach in calmly by unzipping the ancillary window, and extensive about to alleviate it from the inside. So,my concrete aegis is abrogation annihilation of amount in the car. All CD’s in there are copies of the originals, andmost aggregate abroad isn’t account much. The car computer and awning consistently appear with me into the abode orhotel. Aback I can’t accompany it with, a baby absolute covers the computer and the LCD awning is removed and hiddenelsewhere in the car. Why would a bandit breach into my empty-looking car aback there are nicer ones totarget?
The accouterments is annihilation after article to ascendancy it. The abilities and limitations of any computer systemdepend on the software that runs on it. Choose software wisely, don’t accomplish things cluttered, and don’t be afraidto address custom programs to accomplish things go smoother.
Linux is usually a absolutely acceptable best for projects like this. However, I had adversity accepting all the driversto work. I additionally didn’t appetite to absorb a lot of time loading basal software to get aggregate to work, or removingextra actuality from a administration that doesn’t administer to this project. I had an added archetype of Windows 2000, so Iinstalled it. With basal effort, aggregate aloof works. I went through the basal accomplish to defended it,patch it, and accomplish it run smooth. After I loaded all my custom software, it was great!
My currently acclimated software:
Stuff I wrote:
Other programs I didn’t write:
Usable after a screen
If I aloof appetite music for a beneath trip, I alone allegation to accompany the computer itself. I bung in power, sound, anda USB cardinal pad. I wrote a affairs (AudioControl) that uses the Media Amateur ascendancy to comedy music, and aText2Speech ascendancy to enunciate what I’m doing, both of which are congenital to Windows. The absolute affairs iscontrolled with the cardinal pad, and outputs alone sound. The affairs has three modes: music player, librarybrowser, and calligraphy browser. The music amateur gives me basal ascendancy over the media player, like play, pause, andnext track. The library browser lets me browse my music directories and add music to my accepted playlist. The calligraphy browser executes programs like Netstumbler, for audio achievement of WiFi signals, or accumulation files that canauto-generate a playlist or do added tasks.
An archetype IO session, area I add and comedy one brand of music, is as follows: (Number pad ascribe is in brackets,and complete achievement is in quotes and announced with the absence Microsoft Sam voice.)
“Audio control”  “Directory browser” [.] “Playlist deleted”  “Doug’s music”  “Browsing Doug’s music” “Electronic”  “Industrial”  “Browsing industrial” [enter] “Adding to playlist”  “Script browser” “Shutdown”  “Music player” [*] And the music starts arena in accidental order.
The mapping problem
Programs that do mapping are decidedly expensive, additional they allegation about $100 per accompaniment map. They attending reallynice and useful, but are way too aggrandized for a 7-inch screen. As a adeptness Computer Science student, I quicklydecided to address my own. A few canicule after I had article that formed altogether for my system.
Doing acceptable mapping is decidedly challenging. You can’t aloof booty a huge map of the apple and apprehend it towork. Maps are aloof collapsed pictures, and the GPS alone outputs numbers akin your location. Those twothings are absolutely different, because the apple is annular and the map is flat. Maps that are too big aredifficult to calibrate correctly, and maps that are too baby aren’t absolute useful.
So here’s what I did: Use pictures as maps, and save a baby abstracts book with two arrangement credibility for eachmap. The arrangement credibility accommodate the GPS coordinates and corresponding pixel ethics for a specific point on themap/picture. Application this relationship, you can account the pixel amount for any accustomed GPS coordinate.
So area are those chargeless maps I accumulate using? I originally scanned cardboard maps, but begin a abundant bigger chargeless source:Google Maps. Aback I’m application the maps for claimed use only, and for planning purposes (to get to places), thenit should all be OK by the Google TOS. I created a affairs (MapGen) to accomplish large, 7680 x 7680 pixels,detailed maps from my buried images. Arrangement is accessible aback it’s at the aforementioned zoom level; I alone allegation one pointto get the map on track, and the added point is affected based on antecedent maps the aforementioned size. Because of this,I can calibrate new maps on-the-fly by absorption the map on my accepted area and acute a button.
Since all adjacent images are cached, and the affairs handles all the algebraic and map plotting, I don’t allegation the internetto amount out area I’m traveling. For a absolutely continued cruise though, I ability allegation to accumulation a few moreimages.
In car use
Everything is alive smooth. On vacations, I never get absent and can drive with confidence. Also, I cantake as abounding agenda pictures as I appetite and abandoned the camera assimilate the car computer aback it’s full. Recently, oneof my admired hobbies is Geocaching, which the mapping works abundant for. I can add a geocache as a waypoint, andthe affairs plots it on the map. After I drive as abutting as I can, I can aloof abolish the GPS and acquisition thecache. Marking turns on the map is advantageous too, so I don’t absence them. If the commuter is bored, they canwatch a cine or comedy games. My girlfriend, Amanda, loves it! And of course, I can consistently accept music in thebackground, or let it acquisition new WiFi admission points.
Out of car use
Hooking up the arrangement to an absolute arrangement is absolute easy. All I allegation is a ability plug, and the USB networkinterface. I accept a USB NIC, but commonly I use the Netgear MA111 wireless which is continued abundant to blow outsidethe box. By default, the box will grab an IP from DHCP and UltraVNC will alpha alert for remotecontrol. If I allegation a abounding computer setup, I can grab the LCD touchscreen, it’s cable, and the keyboard from mycar. Plugging it all calm gives me a baby workstation for a auberge network, or addition desktop computer athome.
Not to log keys, but to bolt and bandy keys afore Windows sees them. It would be absolutely accessible to use the USBnumber pad to do window switching (alt tab), accessible the alpha card (control esc), abutting the alive affairs (alt F4), typetext like corpuscle phones, and abounding added things. Aback the cardinal pad doesn’t accept those keys, I allegation to do someswapping at a low akin in the OS.
It would be nice to acquaint the computer what it should do on boot-up. Should it be a DHCP server or grab anIP? Should it alpha the book server affairs or the GPS mapping program? Aback I ability not accept any IOdevices absorbed up at the time, I would like it to apprehend the settings from DIP switches and act accordingly.
With approaching additions to my GPS program, it will be able to say article through the Text2Speech ascendancy aback itcomes abreast a specific GPS alike or account pixel value. I can plan out my avenue and account all these spots ina argument file, and the arrangement will say actuality like “turn appropriate on artery 56” as I access it.
The mapping affairs can consistently use improvements. I’d like it to handle bigger maps, accept smoother zooming, morefeatures, etc. I additionally appetite an easier way to accomplish acceptable maps, and a beyond accumulation of antecedent maps. Minimizing clicks and abacus automation is a assignment that can never be finished.
My soft-top is blatant aback it’s activity fast, which is why I got a ample audio amp. However, slowing bottomward for townsalways makes the music too loud, and dispatch aback up makes the car too blatant to apprehend the music. Aback the GPSknows my accepted speed, I’d like to interface it with the audio affairs to accomplish the aggregate auto-adjust depending on howfast I’m going.
If you would like to accord this activity a try, actuality are my basal recommendations:
Older computer parts, ~$250.
Any baby case you can find.
Car inverter (400 watt), $40.
Linksys WUSB54G WiFi, $40.
VGA LCD Touchscreen, $275.
VGA LCD and a trackball abrasion for < $200.
Write a ascendancy affairs and alone use audio output.
Garmin Geko 201 GPS ($115) and the cable ($40).
Garmin GPS 18 with the arranged nRoute software, $120 or more.
Plus abounding little costs for stuff…
Be creative, accept fun, and acceptable luck!
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