Ford’s 3D-printed prototype shift knob teaches you how to drive a manual

Fans of video games and Fords are going to love this. Using the Detroit automaker’s open-source platform, 3D printing, Bluetooth and a Xbox 360, one of the company’s rookie engineers created a manual shift knob that vibrates at the best time for a gear change. The vibration is known as ‘haptic feedback.’

“I wanted to create something that expands the car’s capabilities and improves the experience for the driver,” Ford engineer Zach Nelson said in a statement. “I decided to use OpenXC to provide a new kind of feedback for the driver through the shift knob.”

Ford’s open-source OpenXC software and hardware platform lets developers create apps through the data available in the car’s on-board diagnostics port and Nelson, a mechanical engineering graduate from MIT who joined Ford in September 2012 through the company’s college graduate program, began working on OpenXC at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich. upon his hiring.

Nelson designed an app that uses real-time engine data, such as RPM, accelerator pedal position or vehicle speed, to pinpoint best shift points for the manual transmission. The information is processed in a tablet computer over a Bluetooth connection using the OpenXC adapter.

The caveat? During testing, the tablet uses a USB cable to send the shift knob signals to vibrate like a game controller or phone.

A digital model of the shift knob from a Ford Focus ST turned into a hollow shell with room for extra parts was printed with MakerBot’s Thing-O-Matic. Nelson then installed an Arduino controller with a mini-USB port, LED display, colored LED lights and the vibration motor from a Microsoft Xbox 360 game controller.

“OpenXC is a great platform for developing connected apps and aftermarket upgrades, or quickly prototyping features that could eventually be incorporated directly into the vehicle,” Nelson said. “The basic concept of my system could be integrated directly into the car, and used on automatic-transmission vehicles with paddle shifters with electric power steering.”

The app and Nelson’s designs are posted on OpenXC’s projects page.


Photo Credit: Ford