The Art of Car-Hacking

By Koren Wetmore
Nishanth Samala

During his senior year at Illinois Tech, Nishanth Samala (CS ’14) took his Mazda in for routine maintenance and received a shocking $2,000 repair bill. Later he learned the total was significantly inflated for the type of work done. This disturbed the self-proclaimed gearhead, who has tinkered with cars since childhood. It also raised the question: If a mechanic could rip him off, how could everyday people protect themselves?

Fortunately, there’s now an app for that.

Strados, a phone app developed by Samala and his business partner, Bingkun Zhao, connects to an online machine-learning platform that analyzes a vehicle’s computer signals and alerts the owner to potential problems. Diagnosed issues are assigned a severity rating and a cost estimate. For example, Samala says that Strados might detect that a car’s oxygen sensors are reading erratically and send an alert indicating a possible problem. Strados would then begin to investigate.

“It will let you know if you need to replace an oxygen sensor, which is about a $200 repair,” Samala says. “Without that warning, your failing sensor could lead to a catalytic converter failure, which can cost up to $3,000 to fix.”

An early Strados prototype included a small device that plugs into a car’s diagnostic port, located under the steering wheel of vehicles made after 1996, but the latest version integrates with third-party devices.

“We’re talking with potential hardware partners, so we don’t have to do the extra work of developing a device,” he says.

Strados processes vehicle data using sophisticated algorithms and prediction models to determine whether a problem exists. The prototype has worked well on a handful of test vehicles. The creative duo’s goal is to gather and test data from hundreds of vehicle makes/models to fine-tune their data models so that, according to Samala, “the computer can do the calculations instead of us.”

Strados processes vehicle data using sophisticated algorithms and prediction models to determine whether a problem exists.

Strados drew interest at the 2014 Chicago Auto Show and was included in Inc. magazine’s 2014 list of “America’s Coolest College Startups.” The budding company has been primarily funded from Samala and Zhao’s own cash reserves and, for now, is relegated to being a part-time pursuit, as both men work full-time jobs. (Samala is a computer engineer at Nokia.) However, Strados was recently accepted into Microsoft’s BizSpark Plus startup program, which provides $10,000 per month to support the app’s online infrastructure.

Samala hopes to keep the app free for users by monetizing it through contracts with companies that have expressed interest in the data it will generate. Potential income may come from the insurance industry, which hungers for accurate driver mileage data and has been in conversation with Samala about the possibility of purchasing quarterly mileage updates.

A beta version of Strados may become available by year’s end on Google Play.

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