Geek talk: ISO-TP and ELM327 dongles

Micro introduction: A CANbus, which is used to connect all computers in the car, can only carry chunks of 8 bytes plus an ID, called frames. All data used to actually operate the car, such as switch positions, speed, and hundreds of other parameters are stuffed into unique frames and send out freely, almost always at fixed timed intervals. This is why we call them free frames. There is zero standardization among car makers on the meaning of the ID and the bits inside. Commercial dongles are not really designed to pick these up and have a lot of trouble doing so reliably or at all. (hint: “Timeout on ATMA” anyone?)

To actually diagnose the car, far larger “messages” are required. Even a VIN doesn’t fit in one frame, let alone i.e. the data for the voltage heatmap. For this purpose there is a protocol called ISO-TP which allows you to send longer messages. A software layer chops it up in frames, adds some synchronization data and sends it on. Exactly the same happens for long answers. ISO-TP formatted messages are almost exclusively of the query-response type. One participant (say the dongle or the dealers diagnostics tool) requests something, a computer on the bus answers. Even entire firmware up- and downloads are performed this way.

Why is this relevant? The ELM327 based dongles have basic support for ISO-TP. It’s a pain to set up, but it works and it’s actually what they are designed to do. The caveat being it only works for receiving long messages. We never gave this a lot of thought as the queries we put to the car always fit one single frame. Until the TPMS requirement came up. Writing the valve ID’s requires sending a long message. We implemented “long message ISO-TP” from the get go in the CanSee DIY dongle, so after tedious debugging, we knew setting TPMS worked, but now we had to tweak the driver for the ELM327 dongles to support long messages.

Luckily we were not the first. This nut was already cracked by Cedric Paille, the hero who made DDT4All. By carefully going through the logs of DDT4All, we could modify our ELM327 driver to now also send long messages.Thank you Cedric! The crazy thing is that if you use a commercial dongle, it does quite a bit of the ISO-TP hard work for receiving frames, but for sending quite a bit more is done CanZE and suddenly it is timing-relevant. This is what actually held up a new CanZE release.

Teaser: we have more things up our sleeves regarding not just the CanSee DIY dongle but also for the good old ELM’s. But first: a few final test and then release. As always, stay tuned.

3 comments on “Geek talk: ISO-TP and ELM327 dongles
  1. jimcraiguk2016 says:

    Thanks, I love reading these updates!

  2. Gordon mccrea says:

    Really appreciate what you are doing thank you. Parts arrived, dongle in construction (steep learning curve here)

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