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McFly's Car-PC on Opel/Vauxhall Astra G/Mk4

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  • McFly's Car-PC on Opel/Vauxhall Astra G/Mk4

    Project state up to date (19 feb. 2009):

    Details below.


    A few pics of the car behind the project, Opel Astra 1.7DTI, 100HP:

    Now on to the story...



    Back when I was only dreaming of heaving a car, and had a lousy P1 computer, I had thoughts of combining the two. And I was having ridiculous ideas as to buy an older, b/w screen laptop and mount it, opened, on the dashboard of a Calibra (my dream car ). I was looking at pictures of the Calibra dash and daydreaming about the installation of the laptop.

    After many years, I finally had the opportunity to actually build my car-pc. On an Astra G (MK4) though, not a Calibra but this isn't that important. in the meantime, technology has evolved so that nowadays anyone can afford to buy a car-pc. I, on the other hand, had some principles: to build it with my own hands, and the less bling it has, the better. It should look like the car rolled out of the factory the way it is. Well, I made some compromises here-and-there, I spent a bit more than I wanted and it definitely could have turned out more professional looking. Anyways, I feel that my project deserves to be shared so here it is: all the work on my car-pc, starting last year's december until today.


    Let me start from the beginning...
    I gathered the following:
    - desktop P4 1.7GHz, 256 Mb RAM, 40 Gb HDD laying useless at home
    - LCD 8” touchscreen 800x600 with VGA input off ebay

    Studying how others did, I choose to use the glove compartment to house the PC.
    Initially I wanted to mount all the components on a shelf which divides the glove compartment in two, the space wasn't enough. So in the end I mounted the mainboard on the ceiling and the ATX power source along with the HDD, on the floor of the glove compartment.

    The graphics card, ATI 9250 128 Mb:

    As I left the system running to test stability, I noticed a temperature change around the glovebox to the point I started to sweat. I opened the glovebox door and it was steaming hot inside. It turned out the temperature in idle raised up to 70C. At that point I decided to cut a hole on the side of the glovebox and install a 12cm cooler. This solved the overheating problem, keeping a normal temperature inside.

    The time to mount the system into the car has come. My choice for power source was a bad one, but at that time, the only one: the 12-220V inverter. As an alternative there was the M2-ATX but given its price and shipping to my country, I went for the invertor.
    Instead of buying an invertor, I made it out of an UPS hooked to the battery of the car instead of its built-in battery. I had difficulty starting the PC with the UPS, it only started for about 1 second and then cut the power. However, using the UPS's own battery, a 7Ah one, it worked flawlessly. This was eventually solved by parallelly connecting a large capacitor (few millifarads) with the car battery.

    Once the power source sorted out, I was free to proceed with the installation. The Astra's central console has two DIN slots, unfortunately far from each-other. From top-down, it starts with the vents, head-unit, heater controls and the second DIN, with a shelf mounted inside. I decided to use the space of the upper DIN and the vents for the LCD. So I moved the head-unit to the lower DIN slot, and the shelf to the upper one. Then I used a steel clamp to mount the LCD to the shelf in the upper DIN.

    The monitor cables ran behind the central console, into the glovebox. I mounted the UPS underneath the glovebox, with wires . I ran a cable from the battery to the UPS, underneath the windscreen wipers, through the air recirculator's housing (I wasn't able to find a free hole through the firewall) which is located between the glovebox and the firewall.

    I connected the audio output from the soundcard to the head-unit's (a magnificent stock Delco CDR-500 CD-player) handsfree input. Unfortunately I wasn't satisfied with the mono and midrange-emphasized sound. I then turned to an FM transmitter, the sound was better but the PC caused interferences in the FM reception.

    The old set-up in action:

    Component temperatures with -6C outside temperature:

    Unfortunately, as the HDD was mounted to the glovebox's floor using sticky rubber pads, it had a short life. Some (or most) of Romanian B-roads are poorly maintained and after only a few hundred km-s the HDD died.

    McFly's CarPC on Opel Astra G
    Romanian car-pc owners

  • #2

    The project stalled for a while, my approach to power supply wasn't the best out there (the UPS had to be turned on first, then the PC), consumption, heat... the LCD was looking foolish and had a great appeal to thieves.
    That's why I decided to mould the monitor into the central console.
    I had second thoughts about chopping up my console, because I never worked with fiberglass before. But then again, if I paid someone to do it, it would've costed me a lot of money. This way if I ruined my console, I would have lost its worth, but gained experience in change.
    Because I liked the position of the monitor over the vents and upper DIN slot, I made some measurements and found that it would fit. That ment loosing the central vents, leaving only the two side ones, but, even though it was a hot summer, I survived so I don't regret it.
    The console untouched:

    The big moment: after some hesitations, I made the first cut:

    From then on, there was no turning back. At my workplace I cut a piece of POM sheet to cover up the hole on the console. Because there is a curvature on the console, I milled the POM piece to continue that curvature.

    Then I cut and filed an 8" window, the size of the LCD.

    To integrate this frame into the console, I used fiberglass-putty from a local car parts store. I sanded the console for painting and because it had a rubber layer with a texture impossible to replicate on areas where the putty was used.
    I filled the gap between the frame and the console from both sides:

    Then added more putty in a thick layer:

    At this point I was pretty let down by the looks of the console, thinking I can throw it away. Remember it was the first time for me so I was a bit scared.

    Then a lot of sanding, filling, sanding, filling... quite a few times in a row. Above the upper right corner of the screen, I drilled a hole, pressed a red plastic in it, covering the IR receiver of the monitor. Afterwards, I layed a layer of fine putty for finishing, sanded it down after drying with fine sandpaper and water, until I got the smoothest surface possible.

    I have to mention that, as far as I've seen, LCDs are moulded using their original bezels, so one can get the most perfect edges, and keeps the buttons also. I made a new frame for several reasons. First, if I was ever to sell the monitor, or send it back in warranty, I needed its original housing intact. Second, I didn't need buttons as I have the remote for the monitor's functions (rarely used like brightness, rgb etc) and those buttons do not resemble with the other buttons of the car, so the stock look would be compromised. And last, because the central console is curved at the vents, the original frame of the LCD would be hard to mould since it can't follow that curvature.
    That's why I've chosen to build a new frame that follows the console's curvature and deeper on its back, it supports the LCD panel.
    Although at first sight it may look ugly, it's nevertheless useful to have a sort-of sill in front of a deeper-set screen: while driving, three fingers can rest on the frame's sill leaving the index and middle finger to navigate accurately on the touchscreen - even while driving on poor quality roads.

    The LCD panel was easy to mount on the back of the frame, I drilled threaded holes in the frame for the screws which held the panel in place in its original housing.

    Before mounting the console back in the dashboard, I stumbled upon a small set-back: anything thicker than the console itself won't fit back in because of a stiffening rod in the dash. After seeing that others have done the same (hell, some haven't even found it in their Astras ), I unleashed my angle grinder. A disturbing image of the cockpit:

    However, that rod wasn't put there by the germans just for fun... it gave the dash more stiffness and supported the console too. Compromises...

    At the first mock-up, I successfully f*ed the monitor. I somehow managed to press some screws against two of the flexible PCBs that carry data to the panel itself. This left two, multiple pixels wide lines on the screen:

    After many days of swearing, I decided to go on with the project, and somehow in the future I'll sort out this problem or replace the screen. So I went on to painting the console. I used universal multi-surface spray paint. Mea culpa, I didn't use primer, just a final sanding and a thorough cleaning of the whole surface. I chose matte black to reproduce as closely as possible the original finish if the console.

    McFly's CarPC on Opel Astra G
    Romanian car-pc owners


    • #3

      The project stalled once again, because I sold my old PC. Not being satisfied with its performances as a car-pc, the fact that it ran off an UPS, the noise, the consumption... these all led me wanting something more mobile: a laptop.
      In my belief it's the ideal solution: low power consumption; less heat; compact size, the ability to hide it in numerous places in a car; the HDD supposedly withstands better to shocks and so on.

      So I found (it wasn't easy) the following laptop, at a lower price due to its cracked screen:
      - model Acer 5315
      - Celeron D 1.53GHz
      - 1 Gb DDR2
      - 160 Gb SATA
      - WLAN
      - DVDRW
      and so on.

      Some fiddling followed on the software side, the laptop is "designed for vista"... but I didn't want Vista... So, gathering drivers for XP, installing XP instead of Vista, convincing the laptop that I don't want to use its own display, but the external one - for some reason it kept returning to its own. Then one day, I don't know how, it just kept on displaying on the external LCD...

      Happy with the new PC, I soon realised that it won't fit inside the glovebox. Neither under the front seats... I thought to mount it overhead on the roof too, but then I don't think it would've had that "clean look" which I was after. Although this is definitely not a bad idea, if I had a laptop with a functioning display, it would've been a great setup with 2 screens: one on the console and one larger, flip-down for the rear passengers.

      Thus I ended up looking inside the trunk. In the sides I didn't want to drill holes in the fenders. On the floor it isn't good because I use it for luggage.

      So I was left with the back seats' backrests. I chose the narrower one because it's easier to fold down, giving access to the laptop when needed.

      To avoid making holes in the laptop's case, I made a supporting plate out of plywood and steel clamps padded with rubber. It may seem ugly, but it does a great job. Under the backrest's lining, on the steel backplate, I found several holes so I didn't need to drill new ones, I just bolted the plywood plate to the backrest.

      Next I had to install the cables. I ordered 3 meters of each: VGA cable, USB extenders for the port in the console and the touch panel, stereo audio cables for the sound (to head-unit aux input, it's now a Sony GT212) and for the Power button in the console.
      The power to the laptop is supplied by a cigarette lighter->laptop adapter. This is hooked up to the cigarette lighter's circuit so it runs only when the engine runs, charging the laptop's internal battery. This way, the car's battery isn't drawn by the laptop. Instead, when the engine isn't running, the laptop uses its internal battery, its charge always topped up by the adapter. The LCD touchscreen is, on the other hand, hooked to the switched positive line of the car, so without the key in the ignition, it doesn't drain the car's battery.
      The VGA cable needed to be modified in order to connect it to the LCD's control board. I then measured twice, cut once, and soldered the new cable together. I kept the second ferrite to keep noise at a minimum.

      I soldered two thin wires to the laptop power button's leads:

      and connected them to a 3.5mm female jack, which I mounted in a free space reserved for some optional port I guess.

      From here, one of the audio cables run up to the power button in the central console.
      This way every cable can be disconnected from the laptop to take it out if it needs tweaking or repairing.

      I then tightened together all the cables and ran them under the back seat, the floor lining, along the handbrake and gearshifter under their plastic masks, up to the central console.

      I'm using the laptop without its monitor, so the keyboard is exposed. As luggage tends to type on the keyboard, it would be useful to have at least the case of the display back on but at this time it doesn't fit back because of the clams that hold the laptop in place. For now, this is how it stays...

      Another problem I had, as I was cruising in the city to find open wireless networks. It was a bit strange not to find any... Then I discovered that the wireless antenna is built in the monitor's case. After I took them out (there's two of them) I stuck them on a sheet of plexiglass, for now... until I find a way to extend them outside of the car. It works this way too, but I'm finding twice as many networks with the trunk open than with it closed.

      That's about the state of my project... I am now working on moulding the power button, wifi, power, hdd state LEDs and emergency lights switch into a plastic mask between the gearshifter and ashtray (now a hole as seen below):

      McFly's CarPC on Opel Astra G
      Romanian car-pc owners


      • #4

        Concerning the software side:

        I'm now using Centrafuse 1.2 XLE, running on Win XP. In the future I may give Linux a try, also.
        I managed to connect my phone through bluetooth, although it rarely works and I have to re-setup phonecontrol to make it link with the phone. Windows does it seamlessly, so I'm suspecting phonecontrol and centrafuse. Anyways, one rare moment:

        For navigation, I integrated iGO2008 into CF and it works great. Although I still haven't bought a GPS receiver, the map can be browsed, routes can be planned...

        For DVD video, I have to tilt the back seat with the laptop on its back, to gain access to the DVD-RW drive.
        I'm still trying to integrate MPlayer into CF as the default video player, as I don't want idiot codec-packs to charge my system.

        As a frontend, I liked RoadRunner's layout more, but it seems a bit hard to set up and, at least in my case, I couldn't start it on my laptop, just on the desktop. Anyways... maybe one day I'll code my own frontend


        What's next:
        - the buttons moulded in the mask below the ashtray
        - coax cable running overhead to a mike in the rooflight
        - GPS receiver
        - new LCD
        - develop an OBD2-USB interface with PIC microcontroller, for real-time diagnostics and trip-computer functions
        - fabrication of a false floor in the trunk and move the laptop underneath
        - etc - new ideas every night

        I sincerely wish to thank you all for helping me out along the way with advices, ideas and to the Astra owners out there for inspiration.

        What else can I say... thanks for listening, it's a long post, I sure hope I didn't bore anyone, and... good luck to all of you working on your installs!
        McFly's CarPC on Opel Astra G
        Romanian car-pc owners


        • #5
          Nice install, mate!
          Later is better than never.
          I kept an eye on your project since the beginning (on other forums ).
          Keep it up!

          I'll have to take time to write my own project, too.


          • #6
            hey mcfly, I enjoyed reading your install. I can see you took the conservative approach. In the same token, the monitor doesn't look terrible with two lines running though it. However, the fabrication work that went into mounting the screen is fantastic!

            You mentioned something about luggage hitting the laptop's keyboard in the cargo area. Why not dismantle the laptop shell and simply remove the keyboard section? Better yet, there will be a ribbon cable inside, just disconnect it. The laptop will power up and still work without it, of course, provided that you have an external usb keyboard connected.
            Check out my CARPC: Project Diamond Plate

            Quick Reference:
            CPU Electrical Specs
            Power Supply Calculator

            Video Connections for newbies
            Temperature Converter
            Voltage Calculator


            • #7
              Thanks for your replies. Unfortunately I didn't get the email notification...
              Regarding the keyboard, that won't be a problem anymore, since I'll be starting to build the false floor in the trunk, somewhere in the first days of next year.
              I'll be back with news as the work progresses.
              McFly's CarPC on Opel Astra G
              Romanian car-pc owners


              • #8
                clear and nice install

                Question about display resulotion 800 x 600

                can u see the bios at start pc in ur monitor ???


                • #9
                  Not quite sure about what you're asking, you could be a bit more specific... but yes, I can see the BIOS.
                  McFly's CarPC on Opel Astra G
                  Romanian car-pc owners


                  • #10
                    The Stig disapproves of your clumsiness.

                    j/k man, great install and thanks for the writeup.
                    I have too much time and too little aggravation in my life, so I built a carPC. ;)


                    • #11
                      Don't worry, I heard some say he actually can't perceive vertical lines.
                      McFly's CarPC on Opel Astra G
                      Romanian car-pc owners


                      • #12
                        cool install, keep us informed (mainly about live-OBD2 diag, i am very interested, because my solution didin't worked) and about false-floor as well!
                        Carputer based on eee box pc.
                        Current status: moving! Older carputer version: photo I | photo II


                        • #13
                          My main problem regarding teh OBD is that I have to build a "anything->usb" converter first, using a PIC, because I have no serial/parallel ports available. Otherwise I could just buy an OBD-serial cable for a few euros.

                          Regarding the false floor, I'll start building it next month. Just a small detail, I don't want to drill holes in my car, so I don't know how will I secure the new floor (OSB or MDF) to the car's floor (the steel).
                          McFly's CarPC on Opel Astra G
                          Romanian car-pc owners


                          • #14
                            try M3 tapes with glue on both-sides, it can hold anything - or just fit it tight, because astra trunk is very complicated and it may hold the false floor by itself. Or you can use something like this: if you want to make it demountable.

                            well, about OBD - I've recently bought some cable from ebay for few euros, but it worked only with Opel Tech2, which doesn't offer live-diag. Any other software didn't work also! Be careful and try it before buy
                            Carputer based on eee box pc.
                            Current status: moving! Older carputer version: photo I | photo II


                            • #15
                              Thanks for the info! And, don't worry, I won't buy anything, I'm off to do it myself.
                              If I fail, then... we'll see.
                              McFly's CarPC on Opel Astra G
                              Romanian car-pc owners