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Ford Launches ODB Dongle to Make Old Cars Smart and Connected

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【Summary】Ford claims the revolutionary gadget is only designed for Ford and Lincoln models made between 2010 and 2016 without a built-in modem (the vehicles must also be sold in the US).

Original Michael Cheng    Jan 30, 2017 6:36 AM PT
Ford Launches ODB Dongle to Make Old Cars Smart and Connected

In the race to build smarter and fully autonomous cars, outdated vehicles are getting left behind. Most automakers are focusing on new models for the basis of their robust Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) features. Ford, a leading automaker, aims to change this trend through the release of a unique ODB-II diagnostic device that offers smart, connected capabilities for old cars.

Called SmartLink, the compact dongle uses 12-volt power from the port, which is paired with the user's smartphone app, where commands are initiated. This attachment is only applicable to vehicles manufactured after 1995. Furthermore, Ford claims the revolutionary gadget is only designed for Ford and Lincoln models made between 2010 and 2016 without a built-in modem (the vehicles must also be sold in the US). Based on the loose security features of the unit (more on this later), it is likely that Ford will closely monitor the applications of the dongle.

Remote Start and Wi-Fi Hotspots

Connecting SmartLink to the ODB-II port under the steering wheel of a compatible vehicle will instantly provide 4G-LTE connection. Up to eight passengers can connect to the network at one time. Additionally, users will be able to start their car in a remote manner using the smartphone app, check the vehicle's health, receive security notifications and benefit from location assistance. During operation, the device connects to wireless Verizon networks, which will likely come with a monthly fee. Based on the communication giant's own vehicular platform, customers can expect to pay roughly $15 per month for the SmartLink service.

Gadgets that target ODB-II diagnostic ports, such as the PLX Kiwi MPG, DevToaster's Rev and Torque, are very common. For Ford owners, SmartLink might be the best choice due to direct compatibility and better integration with other stock features.

Controller Area Network (CAN) bus Systems   

SmartLink was created through a partnership with Delphi Automotive and Verizon Telematics, suggesting that it comes with better security features than other ODB-II devices on the market today. The implications of using a connected vehicular dongle paired with a car's CAN bus system and the internet can be extremely disastrous. Hackers could easily compromise the car's network remotely and shut down core components of the CAN bus system, which is ultimately made for mechanical testing or repair.

Moreover, criminals could break into the CAN bus from the connected smartphone app and send malicious commands to the car, such as turning off the engine, triggering brakes and flashing lights. If the dongle does not come with the ability to "write" information, it will not be able to deactivate system components. However, it would still be able to leak sensitive data.

"We've seen the huge interest that we've had in SYNC, and now in the modems that we have in our vehicles, and we just talked to a lot of customers and they're very happy with their current vehicles, but they obviously wanted to have some of the latest connectivity features, too," said Brett Wheatley, Executive Director of Ford's Customer Service Division, in an interview.

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