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GM's OnStar System Hacked 404

Posted by michael
from the think-outside-the-box dept.
Makarand writes "According to this Mercury News article users of GM's OnStar system are finding that they can modify their OnStar unit to make it work with commercially available mapping software after disconnecting it from the OnStar network. Websites and message boards are rife with step-by-step instructions to personalize OnStar's navigational and communications components. When a driver requests directions from OnStar his GPS data is routed over an analog cellular network to OnStar computers and the directions are read back to the driver on the same network. The price for this service is around $400 each year. Those who tap into their OnStar systems pay no such fees."
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GM's OnStar System Hacked

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  • Cool and all, but (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 26, 2003 @01:35PM (#7813200)
    What's wrong with a hand-held GPS unit and a map?

    Or just a map?

  • Call me silly... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by zakezuke (229119) on Friday December 26, 2003 @01:42PM (#7813245)
    I'm not about to dismiss the geek value of this, far from it. Never the less... It seems to me based on what I read all you are doing is modifying the onstar usin so your 3rd party device can get the GPS information, rather then it sent to ONSTAR(tm). Such a mod requires you to have a vehicel with the onstar device, and some basic soldering skill.

    Now... assuming you don't actually own a vehicel with the ONSTAR(tm) system onboard... is there something special about it's gps reciever that would make it worthy to find one at a junk yard and purchace one? Rather then buying your own GPS reciever, laptop, and load in the approperate maping software for your enjoyment and pleasure?

  • by Big Ryan (11871) on Friday December 26, 2003 @01:54PM (#7813333) Journal

    Has anyone seen the OnStar commercial where the OnStar rep opens the vehicle doors remotely?

    How long do you think it would take to come up with a crack that allows third parties to do the same? It would make stealing cars so much easier...

  • by MDMurphy (208495) on Friday December 26, 2003 @02:09PM (#7813430)
    OnStar doesn't make a big deal of it, but while they emphasis the satellite aspect, the communications is pure cellular. If there's no cell coverage, you're SOL as far as OnStar is concerned.
    Granted, they use the older analog AMPS network which has better coverage than the newer PCS ones, but it still has limits on where it works.

    So if you're lost, OnStar will help if you can call them. If there's no cell coverage, you'd be better off if that GPS wasn't a black box in the trunk but had some sort of display and map database.
  • by Otto (17870) on Friday December 26, 2003 @02:40PM (#7813607) Homepage Journal
    This isn't all that new. All that it is really doing is building a serial interface onto the GPS part of the OnStar module and letting you access the data directly. Why bother?

    1) The data is there already. It's cool to have access to it.

    2) Many people, myself included, find OnStar somewhat useless, and don't pay for a subscription after the first free year. So it's nice to get some use out of that hardware that was already in the purchased vehicle anyway.

    3) Using the built in GPS unit means no visible GPS antenna or hardware or what have you.

    4) Because you can.

    There's other parts of the OnStar hardware that are kinda cool too. The thing is basically a brain unit hooked to an analog cell phone and a GPS receiver. There's a built in microphone (in my case in the rear view mirror) and a connection to the car stereo system (both for audio and data, data being to display information on the radio display). Mainly I've been trying to hack the thing to let me use my own cell phone with the unit and thus make hands free calls, using the brain unit for the voice dialing functionality and so forth. Thus letting me make calls on my own phone without pahying the buck a minute charged by OnStar for their phone service.

    Hey, the box in the car is *mine*. I paid for it, and I can do as I please with it.
  • by twiddlingbits (707452) on Friday December 26, 2003 @03:20PM (#7813860)
    You can unlock the doors, but without the special chip embedded in the car key the motor won't start, and the transmisson is locked. Assuming you can hack the ignition to bypass the key, the transmission still won't go in gear so you are stuck. So, until someone comes up with a way to fake the code in the key and communicate that to the system, the doors unlocking isn't a big dealfor theft except for ripping off your stuff.
  • Re:I *like* OnStar (Score:5, Interesting)

    by transient (232842) on Friday December 26, 2003 @03:28PM (#7813895)
    I like OnStar for being able to track, and stop my car if it is stolen.

    This is an incredibly useful feature. My aunt had her car stolen at gunpoint a couple months ago. The police used OnStar to track down the car and bust a ring of serial car thieves that had been working in the Twin Cities for some time.

  • by valkraider (611225) on Friday December 26, 2003 @03:29PM (#7813899) Journal
    Some volkswagen dealers won't hook their diagnostic computers to your car if you have an aftermarket stereo for just this reason. The stereo computer is connected to the engine computer, and the diagnostic computers can check and set things in the radio system. There are conditions that can exist which cause third party radios to fry diagnostic computers.... I am sure that OnStar components could be just as integrated into the engine computer...
  • by Phoenix (2762) on Friday December 26, 2003 @03:45PM (#7813978)
    "And if your car runs off the road and hits a tree I'm sure your laptop will "sense" it and magically send help :)"

    If that is a feature that you want then paying the $400/year isn't a bad way to go. However it strikes me as pointless to hack an OnStar module voiding all sorts of warranties and crippling most of it's functions just to hook it up to a laptop.

    My point is if you're going to bring a laptop to the game, just hook the darn thing up to a $90 GPS and get some sort of mapping program.

    Besides, I'm sure that there is someone out there who can figure out how to make a laptop dial out on a cell modem and say Accident at Lat. x, Long. Y, please send help
  • Re:I *like* OnStar (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jridley (9305) on Friday December 26, 2003 @03:46PM (#7813988)
    I like On-Star for when my "check engine" light comes on, I press the button, they run a remote diagnostic on my engine's computer, and can tell me how serious the problem is and can call me a tow truck if needed.

    Uh huh. So, the computer in EVERY car has a ton of diagnostic info in it, but the manufacturers have done work to keep you from getting that information out of the computer that you bought. Then you pay them a subscription fee to let them read the info out of the computer that you bought and speak it to you. Great.

    It would cost the companies approximately ZERO DOLLARS AND ZERO CENTS to put in a mode to flash out trouble codes on a dash light. The trouble codes are all 4 digit codes. My 89 ford could do this; drop a paper clip across two wires under the hood, power up, the check engine light flashes the error codes. But nobody does this anymore.

    They don't want you diagnosing the trouble, they want you to go to the dealer, or at least, to a mechanic that they hope bought a scanner that included some kickback to the manufacturer.

    Admittedly, modern cars have a TON of info stored in their computers, and it wouldn't make sense to try to blink all that out on a light, but the major trouble codes could easily be done.

    You can just go to the auto parts store and borrow their scanner; the local stores have loaner units. But it's irritating that they don't just give you the codes in the first place.

  • by Otto (17870) on Friday December 26, 2003 @04:32PM (#7814220) Homepage Journal
    This is likely because VW's are shit. If it's that easy to fry their diagnostic equipment, then why in the hell don't they put an opto-isolator inline with the diagnostic box's connection and prevent all electrical surges from making it to the diag box? Because they are idiots, that's why.

    The radio and OnStar and such is tied together in GM vehicles too, using what is known as a class 2 network. Basically, there's a single wire running to every module in the car, including the radio and the OnStar box (and even the CD Changer if you have a factory one). They all communicate with each other using the J1850 VPW protocol. Yes, I suppose that if you ran some large amount of voltage on that wire, you could conceivably fry the modules, but then the car wouldn't work anymore in a fairly obvious way and so you really wouldn't have a hard time figuring out the problem. Certainly the computer wouldn't figure it out by hooking it up, since there's nothing for it to talk to in the car anymore.

    Anyway, this guys mod is pretty basic and doesn't involve tinkering with the "brain" of the OnStar box in any way. All he did was to solder a serial connection onto the GPS board and then disconnect that board from the OnStar system. The GPS doesn't talk to the rest of the car directly, it goes through the brain unit. So nothing this guy does to the GPS can really affect the rest of the vehicle. It's not connected to the rest of the vehicle after he's done with it. Except insofar as it's drawing power from the vehicle.

    As always, if you don't know what you're doing, you shouldn't mess with your car's electronics. But if you're inclined to tinker with your car, and you are capable of understanding electronics, it's not really difficult to figure out how this stuff works. This isn't brain surgery here, anyone with rudimentary electronics skills can work it out and get stuff to work correctly. If it was all that complicated, mechanics wouldn't be able to do it (no insult to mechanics intended, they simply have more of a mechanical viewpoint instead of an electronic viewpoint in very general terms).

  • From what I understand, onstar is most useful when coupled with northstar; GM's latest and greatest V8 which is chock-full of sensors and supposedly will relay all kinds of information to GM, as in your number three spark plug isn't firing, or you're starting to get detonation, and your timing is being retarded however far. This data can then be sent to the appropriate service department when they schedule your service. This way they have an idea of what to look at before you even drive in. Modern ECUs look at an amazing amount of information when deciding what to do with your fuel delivery. Consider this, a modern auto with sequential electronic fuel injection monitors intake air flow, intake air temperature, O2 output, sometimes CO output, exhaust gas temperature, throttle opening position, crank angle, and they generally have a knock detection sensor. They can advance or retard ignition and fuel delivery timing. And that's just the stuff that basically every car does now; Many cars now have variable valve timing, so they can adjust valve timing, duration, and/or lift, some have multiple-stage intake runners so they can make the intake system more restrictive to enhance low-end torque, there are cars with coil on plug ignitions which means that the ignition timing is not advanced or retarded, but simply carried out by the ECU... Hell, Subarus tie the Transmission and Engine computers (which are separate) together so that the traction control system can instruct the ECU to reduce engine output during some types of slip situations.

    It would be fantastic to be able to get all that information out of the car in realtime, all the time. Especially since Northstar engines are reputedly some of the most wired engines ever, and most cars with them have Onstar, it seems like something that some people might like to take advantage of. However, those motors are usually in fantastically expensive cars, so the market probably isn't very large.

  • by valkraider (611225) on Friday December 26, 2003 @05:38PM (#7814527) Journal
    We have an application and(VAG-COM []) and an adapter which plugs in to our volkswagen and provides ALL SORTS of cool info - just like what you are talking about. We can use it in real-time... Neat stuff... And you can adjust settings as well (even break things - just like at the shop!)
  • by Tremo (530922) on Friday December 26, 2003 @05:47PM (#7814567)
    If these OnStar hacks become popular, and if they disable the normal operation of the system, how long before Ashcroft and that Texas moron Dubya move to make these mods illegal under the Patriot act? It would prevent the FBI/CIA/NSA/DIA/IRS/Deputy Dawg from tracking your movements! Circumvention!!! Clearly only someone subversive would not want Ashcroft and his right wing gang from knowing where you are. Ashcroft has said that law abiding citizens have nothing to fear from the Patriot Act!!! And then there's all the DMCA issues that may arise!! Don't you just love our government?? God help us.
  • Re:Yes, but... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by epyx (162239) on Friday December 26, 2003 @06:16PM (#7814677)
    Slightly off topic..
    I am a paramedic in Ohio, and the OnStar system called our dispatchers stating there was an accident with ejection, giving us the freeway the guy was on and what exit he was at. I guarantee this guy didn't hit his OnStar button, as he was shot twice and ejected, then subsequently turned into about 6 pieces of hamburger meat as he hit the exit sign.

    Apparantly, OnStar calls the police and EMS to an accident when your airbag goes off, and they have a sensor to detect when you're sitting in the driver's seat. Airbag went off, senors in the seat said 'hey wait, no driver no more' and called the correct ambulance company to respond. Kind of neat when you think about it.
  • by ColaMan (37550) on Friday December 26, 2003 @07:41PM (#7815030) Homepage Journal
    The worst case is that your radio shorts out spectacularily and blows a fuse

    Please, take care when you install radios....

    The fun starts if your radio installer is looking for an earth. As an auto electrician, I've seen this all too often....

    (Installer probes with test light on original stereo wiring)
    "Here's a wire that's earthed, I'll use that!"

    Oops. The earth was in fact a wire for the dash lights (to light the light in your factory stereo). Now you blow fuses every time you turn your park lights on, because the radio often gets an earth from the frame or the antenna as well. Or, if you're unlucky, you blow the ($100)dimmer module for your dash lights because the designers didn't think they'd *ever* get a short circuit there.

    Now imagine that wire that appears to be earthed is going into your engine or body computer for some mundane function (eg. stereo's on, ok, I'll raise the antenna) and you've got expensive problems.
  • by joeytsai (49613) on Friday December 26, 2003 @07:50PM (#7815072) Homepage
    Those worried about big brother may want to check out this article [] concerning On Star. Basically, once the FBI found out they could snoop on people (OnStar apparently has a "listen" feature) they were all over it.

    Not to mention the possibilities of random strangers listening in...
  • by SpaceLifeForm (228190) on Friday December 26, 2003 @09:07PM (#7815304)
    That gives a whole new meaning for wardriving. Imagine someone taking control remotely.
  • by JakiChan (141719) on Saturday December 27, 2003 @12:42AM (#7815961)
    There is a good explination of the "Aftermarket Radio Problem" here [] and it even tells you how to test for it (I think your average dealer would have a voltmeter) and how to repair it if necessary.

    I think rather than it being a technological issue it's more of an example of how the manufacturers will do whatever they can to try and generate more income for their mechanics and dealerships, and also how a distreputable dealer will use any excuse to avoid honoring a warranty. On the one hand they go out of their way to make it hard for anyone but the dealer to work on it, and then the dealers are assholes. That's why finding a clued mechanic is always a good idea.

If God had a beard, he'd be a UNIX programmer.